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.