Changing Routines

I have come to realise that daily habits and routines make the most difference to my mental health. Big events have an impact of course, for better or worse, but the accumulative effect of the hundreds of tasks and mini-tasks I perform every day is greater. Which is why a drastic change to my daily routine has led to a recent improvement in my anxiety and depression.

Autumn sunrise

I started getting up at 5am.

Typing that sentence feels weird. I am not a “morning person”. I don’t bounce out of bed full of energy and joy, ready to meet the world. In fact, most of the times I had seen 5am in the past were a result of insomnia and/or staying up late.

I always thought of myself as a night owl; working late at night was normal for me, especially when writing fiction. On a good day, I only hit snooze once or twice when my alarm went off at 8am. If I dragged myself out of bed before 9am, I was doing well.

However, I kept reading that getting up early was a Good Thing. Loads of very successful people credited an early start for making them more productive. I began to wonder if it would work for me.

Then, one Tuesday about 6 weeks ago, I accidentally woke up early. I think it was around 5:45am. I was thirsty, so I decided to get up and go downstairs to have a drink. My brother later said “why didn’t you do what I do and drink water in the bathroom, then go back to bed?” I’m not sure of the answer. I suppose reading about the benefits of an early start made me think “I’m awake now, it’s an opportunity to experiment,” but it was subconscious.

I liked being up early, so I set my alarm for 5:30am the next day, then at 5am a few days later. I have been getting up at 5am since — yes, even on weekends.

 

Getting up early means I start my day with an achievement.

I always felt a bit crap rolling out of bed somewhere between 8am and 9:30am. If I overslept for longer, I felt like more of a failure. I was wasting a large chunk of my day dozing — my sleep quality was generally poor, but hearing my parents and brother leave the house in the mornings disturbed my sleep patterns even more, so I never felt well-rested.

It wasn’t an ideal start to the day and I never felt properly awake until noon. Anxiety and/or depression often cause me to procrastinate, so I would often reach mid afternoon without having done anything constructive. This feels crap, too, so the anxiety and depression would worsen and I’d be lucky to get anything done.

Now, getting up early is an achievement. I feel like I’m embracing the day, instead of hiding away from it until I summon the motivation to get out of bed. My mum and I have recently begun walking the dogs early as well, so that’s another item ticked off the to-do list before 7am. It sets me up for a more productive day.

 

It initiates an upward spiral.

When you have a long term mental illness, a lot tends to depend on momentum. When you are having a good episode and feel better, it’s easier to do more things which can improve your mental health. On the flip side, it’s easy to get into a downward spiral where you feel progressively worse and therefore are less able to do anything, let alone adopt positive coping strategies.

Getting up early helps me to initiate an upward spiral at the start of every day. Achieving this one, tiny goal makes my other goals seem achievable. It means I’m more likely to put on my SAD lamp, meditate, so yoga, write, read… All of those self-care activities which seem simple when you feel well, but are easy to neglect when you feel crap.

It’s important to note that I still don’t bounce out of bed. I don’t press snooze anymore, but it takes some effort to get up. I find it relatively easy only because it’s worth the effort.

I feel awake by 7am nowadays, which means I take less time to wake up, but I’m certainly not energetic and focused at 5am. I try to use the time to plan my day and do those simple self-care activities I mentioned. I think this makes a big difference to my mood, because I used to switch the television on as soon as I got up — often in the hope that it would distract me from symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The first hour after I get up gives me the opportunity to “check in” on how I feel and decide what I want to achieve over the course of the day. If I feel more anxious or depressed, I know I need to cut myself some slack and prioritise self-care. If I feel pretty good, I can prioritise work tasks and medium to long term goals.

 

My routine is still a work in progress.

Getting up at 5am has shaken up my whole routine and helped me make improvements, but it’s very much an experiment and there are areas in which I need to make more effort to change. I’m gradually building better habits, partly motivated by considering who I want to be, but there are many habits I need to tweak, transform or drop altogether.

The biggest change has been my mindset: I feel more ready to face the world. Even if most of the world seems to be asleep when I wake up!

 

Overinvesting Spoons

I recently wrote about spoon theory, which is one of those concepts which everyone on the internet seems to be talking about when I arrive late to the party. Like bullet journaling and WhatsApp. Last week, I briefly chatted about spoon theory with a friend who blogs about her experience of MS, and she pointed out that you can overinvest spoons. You think you are setting yourself up for success by investing more spoons in activities which should lead to long-term gains in spoons, but the returns diminish and you don’t get your stainless steel dividends.

Spoons

This got me thinking and led to some interesting questions…

 

How many spoons should you invest?

If you get 12 spoons on an average day, what should be your investment strategy? It’s probably impossible to invest all of your spoons, but if you tried to do so, you would neglect your current needs. You need to do things which are necessary for your health and wellbeing today, which includes taking care of basics like eating proper meals and activities which bring immediate pleasure, like reading or chatting with a friend. If you don’t address your current needs, your spoons will deplete at a faster rate than you receive any dividends.

So imagine you can take care of your basic needs with 6 spoons. Should you invest the remaining 6? It seems sensible, since it could lead to a lot more spoons in the future. However, it also means you aren’t making the most of the spoons you have today by enjoying what you can spend them on. Imagine you have £150 of disposable income after paying your bills for a given month. Would you put it all into a savings account? No, because it would make you utterly miserable. It’s the same with spoons: you need to find a balance between saving and investing.

Personally, if I had 6 spoons left over, I would try to invest half and spend half on activities that make me happy. Spending 2 and investing 4 could work, but would be pushing it. Spending 4 and investing 2 is also a good option. I would keep a similar balance if I had more spoons, for example, if I had a really good day and there were 12 spoons left over, I would try to invest 6 and spend 6.

While this seems like a simple strategy, as with many issues concerning long-term illness, it raises some complicated questions…

 

Which activities count as investments?

You may enjoy many of the activities which give you more spoons in the long-term. Walking, for example, is something I find pleasurable and which improves my energy and mental health in the long-term. Activities like this are a mixture of spending and investment. It’s a bit like buying something you intend to use and enjoy in the short-term, but will sell for profit at a later date – like a classic car or limited edition fashion item. You have to decide what percentage of the spoons you spend on these activities count as investment.

This can vary on a daily basis. Some days, walking feels like more of a chore (usually when it’s raining), so instead of being 50% investment, it’s more like 75%. Other days (often in late spring sunshine), walking feels like more of a leisure activity and only 25% investment. As I keep saying in blog posts, finding what works for you will be down to trial and error.

Assessing the investment value of various activities requires being honest with yourself. Don’t kid yourself that specific activities are investments if you haven’t experienced any returns. You can still enjoy these activities, but as pleasurable pastimes. Conversely, some activities seem like they should bring more short-term enjoyment than they do and are actually more of an investment. For me, this includes social activities – I feel like I should enjoy them more than I do, because “normal” people seem to, but anxiety prevents me. Some social activities are more of an investment in my support network and confidence than pleasurable experiences – even if I have fun while participating in them.

If this all seems complicated, it’s because it is! Living with long-term mental illness can make even the simplest things complicated. In terms of spending spoons, it’s like investing in a wildly fluctuating market every day.

 

Are bigger investments better than smaller ones?

Different activities, including investment activities, require different numbers of spoons. This is a basic tenet of spoon theory. But when it comes to investing, is it better to choose a single activity which uses all the spoons you have available for investment, or should you spread your spoons over a few different activities?

Financial advisers would tell you that it’s generally better to have a diverse portfolio, which seems to favour spreading your spoons over more activities, but some high-spoon activities offer very high returns. I try to balance variety with investment in a couple of high-spoon activities. The variety may not be apparent on any given day, but I try to include several different activities over any given week.

My go-to high-spoon investment is exercise. It helps me feel better than anything else I’ve discovered so far and improves my mood in the short-term, as well as increasing my fitness and energy in the long-term. I invest in exercise most days, so I try to invest my remaining spoons in low-spoon activities like meditation and using my SAD lamp. Other low-spoon activities include listening to music, texting friends, reading and drawing.

High-spoon investment activities are useful tools, but carry a higher risk when you spend more spoons on them. Over-exercising, for example, can lead to exhaustion and injury – which means you get no dividends and will have fewer spoons each day for several weeks afterwards. Finding a balance is vital.

 

What can you do if you overinvest?

Prevention is obviously better than cure, but if it’s too late, you can take steps to recover and ensure you don’t overinvest again. First, consider what went wrong. Did you overinvest in a single high-spoon activity? Did you invest too many of your spoons without spending enough? Did you neglect your daily needs in favour of investing spoons? Don’t beat yourself up; try to understand what happened and why.

Secondly, take care of your current needs. You may need to sleep more, cut back on work or rely on others for more support. Figure out how you can do whatever you need to feel better right now. Spend all of your spoons on basic needs or enjoyable activities – hold off investing for a while.

When you begin to feel better, learn from your mistake and start investing slowly – one or two spoons a day, maximum. Sometimes it can feel so good to recover from a bad episode that you want to rush into action, but that will lead to an all-or-nothing cycle, which is unhealthy at best and can be extremely damaging. Also focus on activities which are a mixture of investment and short-term gains, like gentle walks or eating healthy, delicious meals.

 

Avoiding overinvestment can be difficult.

When you have a long-term condition, especially if you are ambitious, it feels like everyone else is sprinting ahead and you’re stuck in the slow lane. It’s tempting to push yourself too hard, especially when your health improves and you feel better than during worse episodes. Even when you know holding back is sensible and necessary, it can feel like you are making excuses not to pursue your goals at full throttle.

Thinking about spoon theory has given me a useful framework which helps me manage my mental health better. It was created in order to explain the impact of chronic illness to people who don’t understand what it’s like to experience long-term health problems, but it can also clarify the way you think about your own health. Using spoon analogies enable me to treat myself with more compassion and less judgement.

I think it makes me appreciate the spoons I have more, too. I wish I didn’t have to think about how many spoons I have every day, but I’m grateful when I have more spoons than I had at my lowest points.

Refighting Battles

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


Winding lane

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

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

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

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

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

 

And there are many battles to refight.

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

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

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

 

Yet every battle you win makes you a little stronger.

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

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

9 Months After Antidepressants

It’s been about 9 months since I completely stopped taking antidepressants, so I thought I would write an update/ponder on the issue. What follows is a summary of my experience and the issues it has raised.

Pill packets

There has been no dramatic change.

Browsing the internet, you would be forgiven for thinking that people fall into two categories: those who are anti-medication for mental illness and those who advocate taking anything you can get. The impression you get from this divide is that coming off antidepressants after over a decade will have a drastic effect – either you will feel awesome all the time or you will crash back down to the worst manifestations of your mental illness. This did not happen for me.

In fact, not taking antidepressants feels the same as taking antidepressants. I still get bad days, but I also have many good days. Managing my mental illness is a learning curve, but I’m finding and implementing more coping strategies. My hope that I would drop a lot of weight instantly did not (alas!) come to fruition. It turns out my fat has more to do with comfort eating and (lack of) portion control than medication…

Please note that I did not suddenly stop taking antidepressants. I discussed it with my doctor and gradually reduced the dosage over approximately 4 months, regularly meeting with my GP throughout the transition

 

It’s a personal choice, not a political statement.

I don͛t fall into either of the categories mentioned above: I’m neither anti-medication nor fanatical about antidepressants. Like most people, I suspect, I regard antidepressants as a useful tool which should be used to treat mental illness when it is needed and effective. My definition of “need͛” is when mental illness is affecting your ability to function”normally” which will be different for everybody, because it depends on what “normal” means for you. I also advocate using antidepressants in combination with other treatments where possible and appropriate, especially talking therapies.

I have no agenda in choosing to stop taking antidepressants. I decided it was something I would like to try for myself, to see how I coped without them. I’m not urging other people to do the same; nor am I urging them to keep taking medication.

Choosing whether or not to take medication – any medication – at any given time is a personal choice. I don͛t judge people for taking antidepressants, which is partly why I find it difficult to respond when people congratulate me for stopping my medication. A lot of people try to place a moral value on taking or not taking antidepressants, but this is unhelpful and damaging. You are not letting anyone down or doing anything wrong by taking medication. Neither are you letting anyone down or doing anything wrong by choosing not to take it.

You have to do what works for you. For me, that has involved a lot of trial and error in finding the right type of antidepressants and the right dosage at various times in my life. If you (and your doctor) think you might benefit from medication, give it a fair shot – and don’t expect it to work miracles. The media loves to call antidepressants “happy pills” but they rarely have the effect of increasing your mood to that extent, let alone giving you instant happiness in a deep, meaningful way.

You may experience side effects, but you may not. Some people claim that the possible side effects are a strong reason not to take antidepressants, but this disregards the fact that for many people,
side effects are mild and/or temporary – or may not manifest at all. You also need to weigh up the side effects against the benefits of medication, as with medication for physical conditions.

Personally, I believe the side effects I experienced were minimal compared to the improvement in my mental health. In fact, the only major problem I have had with antidepressants is certain types and/or doses not being effective. Seek advice from your doctor, be prepared to experiment and ensure your expectations are realistic.

Withdrawal symptoms also vary a lot from person to person. I didn͛t notice any, so can’t comment much on withdrawal symptoms in relation to my own experience, but it’s something you must
consider when deciding whether to stop taking antidepressants. I waited until I was sure I could cope with any withdrawal symptoms before coming off medication; I needed to know I was in the frame
of mind where I could recognise them as physiological or neurological effects, rather than personal affronts, and seek help if required. Again, it’s a case of experimenting to see what works for you – you may need to reduce your dosage more slowly in order to reduce and cope with withdrawal symptoms.

 

Antidepressants are an important part of my story.

I don’t think I would be alive without antidepressants. They took the edge off the worst points in my life and got me through. I still had really bad episodes of depression, including times when I was suicidal, but they would have been worse and longer without antidepressants – as I found out when I was in my late teens and came off medication too soon because I felt ashamed that I needed them. That͛s why nobody should try to shame someone for taking antidepressants: not taking them could put their life at risk.

Antidepressants provided me with a useful stepping stone, allowing me access to other ways of managing my mental health. Without them, I would not have been well enough or motivated enough to discover strategies which I now find useful, like exercise and meditation. I would not have been able to access treatments like drama therapy and counselling, which have had a massive impact on my wellbeing.

I have been able to achieve long term goals because I have taken antidepressants. I would not have gotten through university without them or learnt to drive. Even trekking to Machu Picchu last month would not have been possible if I hadn’t taken antidepressants; I could only go out walking alone to train because medication boosted my mood enough to make it a possibility in March last year. I will reap the benefits of antidepressants for the rest of my life, even if I never take them again.

 

Stopping antidepressants is an achievement.

I have recently been able to acknowledge that coming off medication is an achievement: not in itself, but because it͛s a sign that I’m managing my mental health well. This is a marked contrast to the attitude I had in my late teens, when I was first diagnosed with depression and thought I needed to stop taking antidepressants no matter what the cost. Back then, I was preoccupied with trying to convince everyone I was fine and terrified of the stigma surrounding mental illness. Nowadays, I battle that stigma and realise it͛s okay to admit that I need help.

This change of attitude is critical – it means that when my mental health dipped at the end of last year, I sought help. I had the confidence to ask for the type of help I wanted (counselling), without either returning to medication or ruling it out. I also recognised the importance of the strategies which had enabled me to stop taking antidepressants, returning to them as soon as I was able.

My initial response to being congratulated for stopping medication was to be defensive. I thought it meant people were judging me for needing antidepressants. I have come to realise that their congratulations are shorthand for “well done for managing your mental health on your own terms and working hard to get to this point.” It acknowledges my strength throughout my journey, rather than implying I used to be weak.

I was also wary about accepting congratulations because I was afraid I would relapse. I regarded coming off antidepressants as an experiment, rather than a milestone. However, I was believing a fallacy: that people would rescind their congratulations if I returned to medication. Again, I was placing the emphasis on the antidepressants rather than my own frame of mind and efforts to self- manage my mental health. People were congratulating me for reaching a point where I could experiment with not taking medication; even if I take antidepressants again in future, I have still attained the achievement for which I am being congratulated.

 

My experience doesn’t imply judgment of others’ experiences.

I struggled to be proud of coming off medication because I was afraid it would be misconstrued as judgment of both myself and others for taking medication in the first place. That isn’t true. In fact, I believe people should be congratulated for deciding to take antidepressants, as well as deciding not to take them, because asking for and accepting help is difficult.

I’m glad I was able to stop taking antidepressants because it was the right decision for me. It͛s not the right decision for everyone. I’m not under the illusion that it makes me a better person or better at managing my mental health than someone who takes medication. Comparing people in this way is unhelpful and cruel, because mental illness varies from person to person – especially when many of us have been diagnosed with more than one condition. Even when symptoms appear similar, the causes and effective treatments can be vastly different.

 

It’s still early days.

9 months seems like a long time in some ways, but represents only 5% of the time since I was first diagnosed with a mental illness. It͛s less significant when you consider that I was experiencing symptoms for at least 5 years prior to my diagnosis. My mental health has improved over the past couple of months, but I don͛t know what the future will bring – I could deteriorate and need to take antidepressants again. If I do, it won͛t signify failure.

All I can do is wait and see what happens, managing my mental health as well as I can in the meantime.

These 9 months have been challenging, but they have also been revelatory. I have coped better than I thought I could, both with little things like walking on my own and big things like trekking to Machu Picchu. I discovered that I can survive a bad episode without medication. I realised how big an impact physical activity has on my mental health when illness prevented me from exercising. I learnt the importance of small acts of self-care, like eating proper meals and making sure I do things I enjoy.

Most of all, I found that not taking antidepressants is not much different to taking them – for me, at this point in my life. There have been no miracles and no disasters. Just me, living and coping as best I can on my own terms.

Relinquishing Fantasies

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

Sunset

So here are the fantasies I have to relinquish:

I would be a lot slimmer

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

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

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

 

I would be a lot fitter.

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

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

 

My mental health would be a lot better.

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

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

 

I would reach my £1000 fundraising goal.

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

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

 

My career would be going a lot better.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

The Next Few Steps

I did a 10 mile hike on Dartmoor at the weekend, training for my Machu Picchu trek. It rained and a lot of it was over tough terrain, so it was hard going. The fact that I am a little paranoid about getting injured and not being able to complete my challenge didn’t help, as I was extra-cautious and therefore slow. Towards the end, I was miserable and starting to feel overwhelmed — not by the Dartmoor hike, but by the looming threat of not being able to complete my Machu Picchu challenge. The only thing which got me through was focusing on the next few steps.

 

Stepping stones

 

Focusing on the next few steps is vital for any difficult time.

I realised as I was trudging along that I need to do this more often: to get myself through the next few steps towards my goal, rather than worrying about the bigger picture. It might not stop the anxiety, but it reduces it and makes it more manageable. Instead of being anxious about EVERYTHING in my life, I can only be anxious about not completing the next few steps.

Dealing with anxiety is often like that: you break it down by segmenting your anxiety and focusing on one segment at a time. This strategy can work well, as it stops you from having a total meltdown, but it presents its own challenges. When the next few steps go wrong, it feels like everything has gone wrong and your whole life is a disaster. That’s why it’s difficult for me to deal with last minute changes in plans. However, most of the time, I get through those steps — imperfectly and inefficiently, but somehow.

You need faith to take those next few steps.

Taking any action requires faith — or at least hope — that you can complete it and there’s a possibility of the next steps going well. There are no guarantees.

I have prepared for my Machu Picchu trek as well as I could, given the circumstances. I wish I hadn’t lost training time to physical and mental illness, but that’s how it worked out. I wish I could have raised more money, but I knew it would be a challenge even before my anxiety and depression got worse. C’est la vie. And if/when I finish the trek, it will be all the more sweeter for knowing what I have been through.

Of course, some elements of the trek are almost impossible to prepare for. I have no idea how I will cope at altitude, for instance, which can reduce the fittest people into crawling, panting wretches. I can’t align my training walks with the walking I will have to do on the trek, because the incline and terrain will be different to anything I have access to in Devon. Nor do I know how my pace matches up to my fellow trekkers — I may be alone at the back of the pack, scurrying to reach the campsite before dark.

But the point is to challenge myself, physically and mentally.

I have never thought the Machu Picchu trek would be easy. Maybe I come across as nonchalant to some people (since I have had a few patronising comments, from people who have never done a similar challenge…), but inside, I am panicking and overwhelmed. I’m doing this because it’s NOT easy. Because I want to learn abot my capabilities and hopefully prove to myself that I can achieve something big.

I’m pushing myself on purpose. I need to keep reminding myself of that fact. It would be easier not to do the trek — to not try. It would be easier to stay at home lost in despair, never trying to fight my way through mental illness, but what kind of life is that? Not one I want to live.

Watching the Mind Over Marathon programme has helped me. One of the runners had to pull out because his anxiety was too intense to cope, but he overcame his anxiety enough to support the rest of the team. A couple of the runners couldn’t start the marathon due to injury and although they were upset, the others (and the trainers and presenter) reminded them that the challenge wasn’t really about completing the marathon: it was about pushing their limits and learning to overcome their mental health problems, one step at a time.

So I’m trying to remember that wisdom as my departure date rushes closer: even if I cannot complete the trek, it doesn’t negate my achievements. I would be devastated, for sure, but it wouldn’t undo all my hard work. I’m still fitter than I have ever been in my adult life. I’m still 2 stone lighter and a little further along the path to a healthier life.

I still fought through my depression and anxiety enough to set a huge goal and follow it through to the endgame.

I want everything to go according to plan and to complete my Machu Picchu trek without any major problems  but I can’t waste time worrying about it right now. At the moment, I just need to focus on the next few steps.

 

 

Weathering The Storm

Things have been difficult over the past few weeks. I feel guilty for saying that, because there has been a death in my family and here I am talking about how it’s affected my mental health. Part of me thinks I have no right to complain about how I feel when other family members are grieving more. It feels selfish to acknowledge how stressed and anxious I have been when other people have been far more involved in the arrangements. But it’s true: although I’m sad about my grandad dying, I am also stressed, depressed and anxious.

 

Seascape

 

I don’t want to write this post, which is why I know I need to write it. I guess there must be a lot of people in a similar position. The fact is, when you have mental health problems, everything gets filtered through the lens of mental illness. This applies to good things and bad. Achievements and bereavements.

I’m not going to write about my grandad. While many people think I’m very open about my life, because I talk about my mental health with as much honesty and openness as I can muster, I prefer to keep some things private. Personal relationships fall into that category. Sorry if that seems cold or weird, but I’m not comfortable blogging about some things.

However, I will discuss the impact of the past few weeks on my mental health.

The main effect is that I had more to worry about. Again, I’m not comfortable with going into detail, but I stress out about everything at the best of times, so you can imagine how my stress worsens during times which anyone would find stressful. I found it hard to think straight – I can spend hours worrying, not even paying attention to the television because I’m so caught up in my thoughts. This makes it difficult to be productive.

Of course, when I’m less productive than usual, I get stressed and anxious about my lack of productivity. I put a lot of pressure on myself. I can’t help it: my mental health struggles make me feel like I have to constantly prove myself. I have to work ten times harder than someone with good mental health in order to do things they find easy.

Another facet to this issue is that I fear I’m reinforcing negative stereotypes about mental illness when I show weakness. I know I don’t represent everyone with mental health problems, but I’m afraid other people will view me as such. Every time I miss a deadline, I think “I’m unreliable” and I’m terrified other people will think not only that I’m unreliable, but that everyone with a mental illness is unreliable.

The logical part of my brain points out that being ill isn’t synonymous with being unreliable, but anxiety persuades me to ignore logic and interpret the symptoms of my mental illness as proof that I’m unreliable, lazy, stupid, a failure, etc.

My counsellor set me homework on Friday and part of the homework is to recognise that my negative thoughts are symptoms of my mental illness, not the truth. It’s easier said than done, but I’m trying! It’s strange how I find it so much easier to dismiss the physical symptoms of mental illness. I can experience gastritis and accept it as a manifestation of anxiety, but I find it difficult to do the same with negative thoughts. When I think “everyone knows you’re worthless and a failure” I don’t immediately recognise it as a symptom – I believe it.

Once you start believing negative thoughts, you give them power and they can spiral out of control.

I have struggled with this spiral of negative thoughts a lot recently. Negative thoughts are my reflexes to external events and since I have trouble challenging them, they turn minor problems into catastrophes. At times, all I can do is cling on and try to weather the storm as my brain produces a torrent of insults, criticisms and accusations.

Living in this state is exhausting and makes problems proliferate. It exacerbates my anxiety and depression, leaving me paralysed by my thoughts. I know I would feel better if I could only do something, but doing anything feels impossible. The simplest things take a gargantuan effort – one morning, I had to give myself a 10 minute pep talk to convince myself to check the time when I woke up!

My counsellor is helping me to realise that I’m still on the right path, despite the obstacles being strewn across the way. I’m still training for my Machu Picchu trek, which is getting scarily close. I’m still writing, albeit less than I’d like. I have to focus on these priorities and trust that I can stay on the right track.

 

Walking My Own Trek

The past 4 months have been a constant struggle, thanks to a succession of viruses (all of which affected my chest) and an increase in my mental health problems. Stressing about my Machu Picchu trek didn’t help – especially as I was unable to do much in the way of fundraising or training – but thankfully two of my fellow trekkers got in touch with me via Facebook and offered support. Something these amazing women both reiterated was the importance of focusing on what the challenge means to me, what I’m accomplishing and my own progress.

The Lane aka my main training ground

Trying to do this is a challenge in itself! It’s bloody hard when everyone else seems to be doing so much better than me – raising more money, training more and generally being excellent Machu Picchu trekkers. It’s hard not to get discouraged when I see someone else in my group has raised thousands of pounds, even when I know that they are not self-funding and therefore need to meet a large minimum amount. It’s difficult to feel motivated when I’m so depressed and anxious that getting out of bed is a challenge.

 

Now I’m feeling better, I have been able to follow my fellow trekkers’ advice and here are my conclusions…

What walking my own trek means to me:

  1. Focusing on the personal meaning the challenge has for me
  2. Recognising my progress and what I have achieved
  3. Not comparing myself to others
  4. Accepting my particular problems, challenges and setbacks
  5. Appreciating the experience and doing my best

 

Comparing myself to others is stupid.

I have mental health problems. I can’t change that fact. I can’t even control my symptoms, though I am getting better at managing them to some degree. When I signed up for the challenge, I knew I would be lucky to hit my £1000 fundraising target, because depression and anxiety prevent me from doing the traditional fundraising activities which raise lots of money. I knew I might experience a relapse, though I hoped otherwise, which would interfere with training.

Knowing these things doesn’t make them easier to deal with, but I need to acknowledge that I have a big disadvantage compared to people who are mentally healthy.

Sure, I didn’t expect to get physically ill for so long, but it happened. I can’t change it, so I need to deal with it as well as I can. This means getting back to exercising when I’m able – this week, I have been walking again and re=establishing a foundation for my training. I hope to increase the amount and duration of walking as soon as I can and go back to gym classes once I stop coughing up phlegm.

I’m able to gain a little more perspective when I compare my current situation to the past. Ten years ago, I was experiencing my worst episode of depression and barely left the house. When I graduated from university nearly 6 years ago, I was a size 26 and so unfit that walking for a few minutes was painful. I’m now slimmer (though by no means slim, at size 18) and go walking alone – which a year ago, I hadn’t been able to do for around 12 years. Given all this, it’s stupid to compare myself to people who haven’t experienced my struggles.

 

My contributions, however small, are valuable.

I have raised £355 to date, which I consider a substantial amount of money. Especially since I don’t know many people, let alone wealthy people! I also know that many of the people who have sponsored me so far have made sacrifices so that they could give me as much as they can afford, so I really appreciate their contributions. Thank you to all of them for supporting me and a great cause.

#TeamAmnesty

As I’m self-funding, I have no official target to meet and every penny I raise goes to Amnesty International, so I shouldn’t feel like I’m letting anyone down if I fail to hit my £1000 target. Part of me thinks “my place on the challenge could have been taken by someone who could raise thousands,” but it’s equally probable that my place could have been taken by someone who would raise less than me. Besides, the challenge could not take place without a minimum number of trekkers; so if nothing else, my mere presence on the trek has contributed towards it going ahead.

I also hope my doing the challenge and talking about it (whether in person, on social media or by blogging) is raising awareness for both human rights and mental health issues.

I want to show everyone that mental illness needn’t prevent you from following your dreams. Sure, it can force you to put your dreams on hold and/or tackle them in an unconventional way, but it’s possible to achieve your goals. Actually, I’m not sure whether I would feel so motivated to follow my dreams if I hadn’t experienced the misery of mental illness.

 

Walking my own trek applies to life, as well as this challenge.

I know that trekking to Machu Picchu will teach me a lot, but the learning has already started. The challenges I am facing as I prepare are reminding me that I need to stop worrying about how I measure up. I have to enjoy experiences as they come and try not to take it to heart when things go wrong. My life has been affected by mental illness to a massive degree and I cannot change that, so I need to work with the material I have been given and use what I’ve learnt as I work towards my goals.

And I hope completing the Machu Picchu challenge is just the beginning.

 

Note: if you would like to sponsor me and support Amnesty International, please visit www.justgiving.com/fundraising/HayleyNJones Every penny counts and gets me further towards my goal. Thank you.

Stepping Up and Stepping Back

Mental illness can make things hard to plan.

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

 

 

Being flexible requires some consideration…

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

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

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

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

 

Priorities need boundaries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your ultimate priority should be you.

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

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

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

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

 

It’s not just about mental health.

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

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

 

 

The Delights of Anxiety — and More Glimmers of Hope

Anxiety sucks. It makes things which you have done many times before, even easy things, very difficult.

Case in point: modern jive classes. It took me two years before I became confident enough to try jive and even then, I met my best friend in the car park so I wouldn’t have to go in alone. Since that first time, however, I have been to lots of classes — several on my own. Yet when I went last night, after 2-3 months of not going, I was extremely anxious.

My hands were shaking so much I could barely get the money out of my purse. Of course, I then felt like an idiot for shaking so I got more anxious and kicked the chair when I was trying to sit down. I felt even more embarrassed and anxious after that…

Thankfully, modern technology saved the day and I focused on my phone to distract myself from the negative thoughts running through my mind. Once the class started, I felt a little better because I had to focus on trying to control the movement of my limbs. After a while, I began to enjoy the class — despite my nerves.

That is a glimmer of hope for me: despite feeling anxious, I had fun.

There have been several glimmers of hope this week, after a tricky weekend. On my walk yesterday (a glimmer of hope in itself, since I hadn’t been walking much lately), I saw more signs that spring is coming. As you can see from the pictures, snowdrops are in abundance and primroses are beginning to bud. There were also lots of daffodils shooting up. These are such little things, but they reassure me that the warmer weather and lighter evenings will come and the difficult times will pass.

 

The trouble with anxiety is there’s no easy path: you can battle it and feel awful as you try to push outside your comfort zone, or you can give up and let it rule your life, sucking every bit of pleasure out until you stay at home every day and do nothing fun.

I have tried the latter in the past and it just made me more miserable, exacerbating my depression. Letting anxiety rule my life is not an option. But that doesn’t make battling it any easier.

I have let anxiety rule me too much in recent months. I have developed a fear of driving, for instance, so have been avoiding it as much as I can. Last night, I drove on my own for the first time in 3 months — a couple of weeks ago, I drove home with my mum in the car, which was the first time I had driven at all in nearly 3 months.

Pushing through the anxiety is not easy, but it’s necessary if I don’t want it to limit my life to a massive extent.

The weird thing is, once I started driving I became less anxious. I had to focus on the road, of course, which introduces an element of mindfulness and takes me out of my head, but I also found it easier than I had been dreading. I had been letting a couple of bad incidents — which weren’t actually that bad, since they involved scraping things at 2mph — outweigh the hundreds of journeys I have made without incident.

 

Today has brought more glimmers of hope, which are helping to lessen my anxiety.

I had a counselling assessment and will now be starting counselling, which is a huge relief. It helped a lot when I had counselling at the beginning of last year and led to many little achievements — including starting the aforementioned modern jive classes! I hope it will have a similar effect this time and help me to build my confidence, control my anxiety, get more motivated and feel less stressed.

I have also had 3 donations for my Machu Picchu challenge. One of the  sponsors is 3 years old, so I suspect her mum (who also donated today) helped, but I’m still counting it as 3! I’m now just £10 away from my initial target of £250 and my ultimate goal of raising £1000 for Amnesty International seems a lot more possible.

I have also had messages of support from a couple of other women who are doing the challenge with me, which has helped to reassure me. They both urged me to focus on what the trip means to me, rather than stressing about whether people will think I have raised enough. I know they’re right — I have wanted to trek to Machu Picchu my whole life and I need to appreciate that, instead of obsessing over what others think.

I feel like I have turned a corner this week: I’m still very anxious and quite depressed, but I am more able to glimpse hope. I might feel stupid for finding things like driving and going to jive class difficult, but at least I did it — that’s got to count for something!