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!

Writerly Expectations

I recently read a fantastic book called Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. It is a compilation of advice columns Strayed wrote anonymously as an online agony aunt. It covers a variety of topics, but a particular letter from a writer in her 20s who felt she ought to have been more successful by now struck a chord with me. As did Strayed’s advice, which can be boiled down to the title she gave to this letter and reply: write like a motherfucker.

The problem with writerly expectations is that so much is outside your control.

Life gets in the way of writing and as Strayed says, you need to let go of your grandiose ideas in order to write well — you have to focus on your art and approach it from an attitude of humility. Many writers have a strange mix of arrogance and insecurity: we paradoxically believe that we should be accomplishing great things and that we are incapable of achieving those great things.

This mindset is not conducive to productivity. On one level, you expect to write well and on another you expect what you write to be shit. It’s no wonder so many of us procrastinate or start stories we discard before finishing!

There also seems to be a process of gaining life experience and trying to make sense of life before many writers are able to complete their first substantial piece of work. This process might take a couple of years or a couple of decades, depending on the writer. The consolation is that things somehow work out:

“I understood that things happened just as they were meant to. That I couldn’t have written my book before I did. I simply wasn’t capable of doing so, either as a writer or a person.” — Cheryl Strayed

 

All you can do is concentrate on the writing — nothing else is guaranteed.

As a writer, you hope that your work will be published and affect people’s lives. You hope it will earn you money. You hope people — especially people you admire — will like your writing. You may have bigger dreams — winning prizes and/or becoming a bestseller.

But what if this doesn’t happen? Is your writing enough for you?

Let’s be blunt: most writers fail to achieve the big goals like winning the Man Booker prize or selling over a million copies of their novel. There are many examples of writers who were hailed as geniuses only after their deaths. If you knew you would never be published, would you still write?

My answer is yes. I’m a writer. It’s a calling and part of my identity. I still hope for success, of course — I’m human! — but my writing is more important to me than the potential rewards it could bring.

The only thing you can do is what Strayed advises — get down in the dirt and write so well that it transcends everything else. She says:

“Nobody is going to give you a thing. You have to give it to yourself. You have to tell us what you have to say.”

I recommend you buy Tiny Beautiful Things for this column alone. Strayed’s advice on writing is fantastic and I would love for her to write a book focusing on writing. However, the rest of it is amazing, too. Go read it now!

And remember, write like a motherfucker.

My Writing Goals for 2017

I enjoyed some small writing successes in 2016, but I think I should have done better. Perhaps that’s the perfectionist streak in me speaking, but when I look back I see lots of room for improvement. Here are the key mistakes I made:

 

  1. I wasted too much time doubting myself

I would have written a lot more if I had just gotten on with it, instead of unleashing an inner monologue of “this is crap, you are a terrible writer, this is a terrible story. Seriously, just delete it all right now. You know nobody will ever want to read it, right? You are wasting your time. If you actually complete this shit and submit it, you will be wasting other people’s time. Who do you think you are, anyway? What right do you have to try and be a writer? Just stop. Right now.”

I know I don’t ask to listen to all that negativity, but I could be more effective in dealing with such unhelpful thoughts.

I find it much easier to ignore the diatribe when a deadline is fast approaching, so I must have some control over whether to listen. The voice also pipes up when I’m preparing to submit something, telling me not to bother (especially if I have to pay a competition fee). I let it win too many times.

 

  1. I didn’t submit enough

Self-doubt aside, I simply didn’t put my work in front of people as often as I should have done. I should have entered more competitions, submitted to more literary journals and anthologies, etc. When I got rejections, I let time slip by before resubmitting stories.

I limited my chances of success by not submitting as much or as often as I could have submitted.

 

  1. I neglected my major project

In the midst of rewriting my novel, I got stuck. I didn’t know whether the plot was working or if it was worth trying to fix it. Something stopped me from giving up completely, but I set the novel aside for a long time.

Towards the end of the year, I did an online novel editing course with Writers HQ and realised that I wasn’t alone in getting stuck and that I could fix the problem. I created a clear plan for rewriting my novel – now I just need to rewrite it!

While I acknowledge that I didn’t have the tools available to fix my plot problems earlier in the year, I regret neglecting the novel for so long. I’m sorry that I lost confidence in it.

 

So here’s what I aim to do differently this year:

 

  1. Prioritise my novel

I need to complete the novel to a decent standard ASAP – for my own sanity, if nothing else! It’s partly a test of whether I can make it as a novelist: the only previous novel I have finished turned out to be a 50,000 word novella after editing. I need to prove to myself that I can write a novel.

Of course, ideally, it will be good enough to get me an agent and a publishing deal… But it’s the completion which matters first and foremost, which means I must prioritise the novel above all my other writing projects and most other things in my life.

 

  1. Submit frequently and regularly

The more I submit, the more chance I will have of placing in competitions and/or getting stories published. It sounds so simple when I write it out, but takes a lot of effort to put into effect.

I will strive to complete work and submit it, then continue submitting each story until it succeeds.

 

  1. Consider my choices carefully

I’m becoming more aware of so-called opportunities which give writers a raw deal. These include competitions with relatively high entry fees and a low prize pot, which are obviously best avoided, but there are some grey areas. For example, many literary journals don’t offer payment for publishing stories. They claim that the writer gains “exposure” which can help their careers, but the value of this is uncertain.

I have been published online without getting paid, which I didn’t mind because it was for a website which I respect and I had only one publishing credit at the time. It also allowed me to show my work to people who had expressed an interest, such as acquaintances and friends of my parents. However, nowadays I would have to be convinced that publication has definite benefits for me at this point in my career if I’m not getting paid.

So my goal is to consider which opportunities are best for my career and which aren’t worth the hassle.

If I get the chance to be published in a literary journal which doesn’t offer payment but which I respect and has a good readership, for example, that would probably be a positive step for my career. However, you can bet your bottom dollar that I will try my luck in paid markets first!

 

My writing goals for 2017 will change and adapt as the year progresses, but I’m driven to do better than last year. I suppose my main goal is simple: improvement.

Getting my Mojo Back

The past month or so has been difficult. In addition to the stress of coming off antidepressants, which I didn’t expect to be so stressful, several minor events threw me off course. I couldn’t even turn to exercise, which I have been using to manage my mental health, because I injured my hip. My mood was affected and at times, it felt like the world was conspiring against me.

However, this week is a lot better. My hip has recovered enough for me to return to gym classes, so that has boosted my mood and put me back on track working towards my fitness goals. I think using the SAD lamp has helped a lot, too. It’s the kind of thing I don’t notice doing good until I do less of it and experience a corresponding drop in mood. My fiction writing is also going well and I’m doing some volunteer work again, both of which help me feel more purposeful.

I have realised that getting my mojo back isn’t about a dramatic change or a magical transformation. It is simply the accumulation of small actions.

Like Austin Powers, I had my mojo all along. I just need to access it through concentrating on self-care. I have to keep doing the things which help me manage my mental health, even when — no, especially when — I don’t feel like doing them. These actions may be small, but they still take a lot of effort when depression and anxiety set in. They may be small, but they are significant.

My self-care actions, in addition to the ones already mentioned, include:

• Getting outside, especially in woodland

• Spending time with my dog and cat

• Eating reguarly and as healthily as I can

• Reading novels and short stories

• Watching The Big Bang Theory

• Mindfulness meditation

• Scribbling down my feelings

• Watching tennis (and Andy Murray reaching number 1 helps!)

• Texting friends/seeing friends

The result of getting my mojo back is that I feel more motivated and have more energy. There is room for improvement, but compared to how I felt recently, it’s brilliant! 

Again, this experience demonstrates the power of small actions when they accumulate. I find that very encouraging — not just in terms of mental health, but also how the principle can be applied to other aspects of life. You might not feel like you can do much to change things, but you can do something small. Keep taking small actions and you could change the world.

Withdrawal Speculation

My last post was about my decision to stop taking antidepressants, after over a decade of depending on them in order to function semi-normally, and it emphasised that there is a lot of uncertainty involved. When you come off medication, you have no idea whether you will face withdrawal or if the symptoms of your illness will intensify. All you can do is play the odds by reducing your dosage gradually and under the guidance of your doctor. It’s been just over a week since I took my last antidepressant, so I thought I would post an update.

Trouble is, it’s hard to observe your own thoughts, emotions and behaviour when you are going through change. It’s also difficult to distinguish between withdrawal symptoms and bad days: anxiety is a withdrawal symptom for the antidepressant I was taking (also a side effect, interestingly), but I have had anxiety for years and its ebbs and flows often seem to be without logical cause and effect. With this in mind, the fact that I felt quite vulnerable and shaky last week cannot be attributed without doubt to withdrawal, but I suspect it was a factor.

Yet while I felt more anxious and overwhelmed than I have been lately, these symptoms were mild compared to the anxiety I have struggled with over the past 14+ years. I didn’t even come close to having a panic attack, for example, and I still went out on my own. That was unthinkable 9 months ago.

I’m also wary about arbitrarily separating anxiety as a physical withdrawal symptom from anxiety as a natural response to making such a big change in my life. Being on edge is understandable during any period of uncertainty. I have googled my medication: I know that a lot of people have bad experiences in coming off antidepressants and that my particular drug is associated with some extreme withdrawal symptoms — and although these are very rare, they were a distinct possibility. I had no idea whether deciding to stop my medication was a huge mistake which could undo all the changes I have made recently and cause my wellbeing to plummet.

Thankfully, my anxiety seems to have been unfounded. I have noticed no other withdrawal symptoms and feel better than ever. I am even more confident that coming off antidepressants was the right decision for me.

Regardless of whether last week’s anxiety was down to withdrawal, I know there will always be fluctuations in my mental health. Everyone experiences these fluctuations and while mine might be more extreme, since I will always be prone to mental health problems, they are manageable. I can cope, with or without medication as needed. I can cope.

 

7 Ways to Deal with Anxiety When You Are Getting Out More

Recovering from anxiety enough to get out more and do more activities presents a paradox: you feel more anxious when you are pushing yourself to do something different. It is tempting to give up and go home. However, the only way to move past anxiety is to face it head on. These tips and techniques are for anyone who is trying to push his/her boundaries, but finds anxiety gets in the way.

1. Control your breathing — before you get too anxious

There are lots of breathing exercises which are said to help anxiety, so it’s worth experimenting to find out which work best for you. In my experience, the main criterion for choosing a particular technique is convenience. Most of the breathing exercises I have come across are effective, but what makes a difference for me is finding one I can do easily. I like counting breaths because it’s easy to remember what to do and I can do it without anyone else being able to tell what I’m doing. My favourite is 7-7-11 breathing: in for 7 counts, hold for 7 and exhale for 11.

The key to using breathing exercises effectively is to practice them when you are not feeling anxious. Start doing them when you are at home and feeling comfortable. Practice until it feels natural. Don’t wait to try a breathing exercise until you are freaking out — it’s bound to feel weird when you have never done it before.

When you are accustomed to using a particular technique, you can use it when you feel anxious. The trick is to start controlling your breathing as soon as you begin to feel anxious. Don’t wait until you are heading for a full-on panic attack: do your preferred breathing exercise  when you are a bit jittery and it can prevent your anxiety from escalating.

2. Leave the room

If your anxiety is getting worse despite your best efforts, exit the situation. Go to the toilet or out for some fresh air. Give yourself time and space to calm down.

Most of the time, nobody will notice your absences. If they do and you are uncomfortable with explaining that you feel anxious, just say you needed to cool off or have a bit of a headache. Don’t make a big deal out of it and no one else will.

Actually, a lot of people regularly leave social situations for a break — and for a variety of reasons. Some just need to be alone for a while and away from the noise. It’s fine; it’s normal.

3. Tell people you feel anxious

I have had a lot of success with this trick, partly because it means I no longer worry about whether everyone can tell I’m anxious. How much you say is up to you — I have previously explained that I have bad anxiety, but nowadays I’m more likely to say I feel a bit nervous. It’s up to you. Most people will be understanding (and even those who can’t empathise won’t berate you) and help to put you at ease.

If you are in a situation where elaborating on your anxiety can help, do so. It’s okay to say ‘when I get anxious I hate being fussed over, so don’t be offended if I need to be alone.’ In fact, it pre-empts issues which may arise. I recently had to explain to my gym instructor that when I get out of breath my anxiety can kick in, so when I stop exercising to control my breath I’m not having an asthma attack or anything. The result: I feel less self-conscious when I need to take a break and my gym instructor knows I don’t require medical attention.

4. Take a friend along with you

There is no shame with having someone there for moral support. I do modern jive classes with a friend — something I would probably have never gotten around to by myself. Friends like to help and will be flattered to be asked. Taking  a friend for the first couple of times you go somewhere new can help you to feel confident enough to go alone in future, so it doesn’t need to be a big commitment for them — you can use them as a stepping stone.

Give your friend guidelines before they accompany you — do you expect them to sit beside you all night or would you prefer to spend a proportion of the time building your solo social skills? Would you be pleased or terrified if they introduced you to people? Do you prefer your friend to order from the bar rather than get tongue tied yourself? Often, a close friend will naturally know how you wish to proceed, but discussing guidelines can help you to feel more at ease and lets your friend know if you plan to experiment with pushing your boundaries.

5. Try essential oils — or perfume

Having some lavender oil on a tissue available takes the edge off my anxiety. Apart from its relaxing properties, focusing on a sense which often gets overlooked (unlike sight and hearing) helps me to be more mindful. It forces me to get out of my head, however briefly.

Wearing perfume I love helps me feel more confident and less anxious. I have no idea whether my favourite scents have any relaxation properties and it doesn’t matter: it helps me stay grounded and reminds me of all the great times I have had when wearing that particular perfume. It’s a subtle trick, too — it took me years to realise that my perfume helps me feel less anxious!

6. Focus on other people, not your anxious thoughts

Watch other peoole, listen to them, pay attention. As long as you are doing this, you aren’t worrying about yourself. As soon as you are in a new situation, look for people you can focus on without drawing attention or seeming odd. In classes, this is obviously the teacher/instructor. People dancing, singing karaoke or otherwise performing are great to watch, too. If there are several people between whom you can divide your attention, that’s even better.

Truth is, unless you are extremely creepy and obvious, people tend not to notice being watched. Most of them are too busy chatting, having fun or worrying about themselves. The advanced version of this (which I’m trying to work towards) is to engage in conversation and really listen to other people. Find out three interesting things about each person you meet. Keep a list (mental or literal) of fun questions and conversation starters. Just keep your attention on others, not your mental chatter.

7. Have an escape plan

If all else fails, what will you do? Knowing how you would leave a situation helps you to feel more confident and secure — regardless of whether you put the plan into action. Who could you call to pick you up? Where could you walk to? Have you got money available in case you need to take a taxi?

Even noting the exits can help — when I know the location of the nearest door, I can visualise walking out of the room and it emphasises the fact that I have options. I don’t have to succumb to anxiety, because I know I can walk away if it all gets too much.

Leaving earlier than planned isn’t ideal, but don’t berate yourself if it’s necessary. Tackling anxiety isn’t easy and you deserve credit for getting outside your comfort zone. Leaving an unfamiliar situation isn’t failure — it’s a successful attempt to expand your boundaries and when you keep expanding your boundaries, your anxiety gets easier to control.

 

 

Shaking Things Up

I’m back from my summer blogging break and a lot has changed…

I reached the point where I was fed up with my life not improving quickly enough, so I decided to shake things up. A lot. I started going to modern jive classes, which I enjoy despite being terrible at dancing. I go with a friend, but my confidence has increased enough that I went on my own when she flitted off to Barcelona for a week. A few months ago, that would have been unthinkable!

I also joined my local gym and go to 3 classes a week to build a foundation for my fitness. I prefer to do “normal” cardio either outside (walking, mainly) or at home on my exercise bike or treadmill, so the classes incorporate resistance exercises as well as giving me a blast of cardio. Since I reduced my medication a few weeks ago (after checking with my doctor, of course), I intend to use exercise to help me manage my anxiety and depression symptoms. I have been doing that irregularly for a while, but being in a class helps me to stay motivated and has a beneficial social aspect.

I won’t lie — it hasn’t been easy. But it’s worth it.

I still get anxious when I push myself, but the more I push myself the more I am able to do. I have learnt that I can cope, even if I need to duck outside for a few minutes to calm down or stop working out for a few minutes until my breathing is back under control. Side note: it’s really weird how getting out of breath when exercising can trigger my anxiety, though I’m getting better at controlling my physiological response.

The strangest thing is, people tend not to notice my anxiety. I had to explain to the instructor in one of my exercise classes that I was anxious, not having an asthma or heart attack! When people do notice that I’m anxious, they take it in their stride and view it as normal. After all, few people relish walking into a room full of strangers. Often, I will say I’m nervous or anxious straightaway, so that I’m not obsessing about whether other people are misinterpreting my symptoms.

The biggest changes are invisible

It’s still early days — although my lifestyle has changed a lot, there have been no miraculous transformations. I’m a little fitter, but I still feel incredibly out of shape compared to the others in my exercise classes. I’m more sociable, but I’m not out partying every night.The biggest transformation has been in my mindset: I have made a conscious decision to focus on the positive aspects of my life.

Again, this might sound simple but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. I’m working hard to cultivate optimism and gratitude. There are days when it’s harder than usual; but there are also many days when I feel happier than I have for years. I still have problems, but now I’m more interested in finding solutions than stressing out about them.

Onwards and upwards!

The past couple of months are just the beginning. I plan to continue making changes, transforming my mindset and creating the life I want. I know it won’t be easy and that I have to keep managing my mental health problems for the rest of my life, but what I have experienced so far has convinced me that it’s worth the effort.

 

Permission to Be Fabulous

Two weeks ago today, I was panicking. It was the first day of my Arvon short story course at Totleigh Barton and I had no idea what to expect. Meeting new people is nerve wracking for most people, but it’s one of my biggest triggers for anxiety, which has been severe in the past, so I was especially worried.

My fears were somewhat allayed by the Arvon staff and my fellow students, who were all warm and welcoming. As the week went on, I grew increasingly comfortable around everyone. Our tutors, Clare Wigfall and Tod Wodicka, were also friendly and supportive. It was a fantastic week — intense, challenging and inspiring.

As my anxiety shifted its focus from whether everyone would hate me and think I’m stupid (aided by vast quantities of wine…), I became preoccupied with my major concerns relating to my writing. These can be summed up as:

• Who the fuck am I to try to make a living from writing?

• Who the fuck am I to write this particular story?

• Who the fuck am I to have goals and dreams?

I realised that these issues all relate to one concept:

Permission

Permission to write, permission to write what I want, permission to take myself seriously as a writer.

I recalled an interesting blog post by Tania Hershman about permission and was surprised to find, upon rereading it, that she refers to an Arvon short story course she taught at Totleigh Barton. She discusses how permission can be gained from the example set by other people’s writing — how other writers have found ideas, written in certain styles or formats, about specific subjects, etc. All of which I wholeheartedly agree with; I have been inspired by various writers to experiment in my writing.

In fact, during the short story course, I hit upon an idea which made me uncomfortable because I felt I didn’t have permission to write about the topic at its core. Strangely, when I consider other writers, I am adamant that anybody can write about anything — as long as they seek the emotional truth at the heart of their story. Nobody owns a particular story until they write it; you can write about your own experiences, of course, but you can also write about experiences which are vastly different to your own. However, I find it difficult to give myself permission.

External Permission

My course tutors were brilliant at giving me external permission to write about whatever comes up. Their tutoring styles were contrasting but complementary: Clare reassured me to continue exploring my ideas and Tod challenged me to think more deeply about my ideas. I continued to work on my story and will complete it at some point (hopefully) in the near future.

I also received external permission when I won the Devon prize in the Exeter Writers short story competition: somebody thought my story was good! Maybe I’m not completely deluded in trying to write. Ditto whenever I receive any encouragement in my writing — it feels like I’m being given permission to continue writing.

Yet as much as I enjoy receiving external permission, I know that I need to give myself permission.

Internal Permission

The more I think about this, the more parallels I find between writing and recovering from mental illness. I spend so much time seeking permission from others, too scared to push my boundaries without it, that I often play it too safe. I shy away from risks, despite experience having taught me that the biggest risks have the biggest payoffs.

There simply isn’t time to hang around waiting for somebody else to give you permission to pursue your goals. Most people are too busy worrying about whether they have permission to follow their own dreams to stop and give you permission to follow yours. Even if you have close friends or relatives who act as permission givers, encouraging you to take risks and push your boundaries, you ultimately need to give yourself permission.

No matter how we pretend to be mature and sophisticated, I think most of us have internalised aspects of fairy tales which do us no favours. We might not literally believe that Prince Charming will rescue us from a life of drudgery, but we bestow this wish onto other things which we (mistakenly) believe will transform our lives and make everything better — winning the lottery being a prime example. We know we don’t have a fairy godmother, but we still wait for someone else to give us permission to go to the ball.

I need to give myself permission. Both in writing and in life. It also needs to be continuous, rather than letting myself take risks sometimes and letting myself hide behind my anxiety at other times.

Consistent Permission

Consistency is key to any success. As a big tennis fan, I see that what divides players at every level is not innate talent or luck, but consistency in training, mental attitude and skill. Every aspiring writer gets told about the famous examples whose manuscripts were rejected many times before hitting the big time (JK Rowling, anyone?), but that’s merely the most visible kind of consistency.

Success in writing usually depends on consistently practicing and improving your craft, finishing projects and submitting work. I need to keep giving myself permission to write and to be a writer.

The same is true of any goal — giving yourself permission every once in a while is not enough. You need to give yourself permission every day to prioritise what matters to you. Even if you don’t actively work towards your goal every day, the permission needs to be given on a daily basis as a reminder that your goals are important.

All-Encompassing Permission

Over the past week, since finishing my Arvon course, I have been learning about how permission applies to all areas of my life. I have realised that part of managing my mental health is giving myself permission, every day, to monitor how I’m feeling and to work with my symptoms, not against them. Sometimes this can be counterintuitive — it’s hard not to berate myself for being lazy when I know that I’m not well enough to work. Sometimes it involves challenging myself more than I find comfortable, because I know it’s better for my long term mental health.

Giving yourself permission isn’t easy, but it is necessary if you want to lead a fulfilling life.

Think of the people you admire most — your heroes and role models. Whoever they are, I bet they didn’t wait for someone to give them permission most of the time. I bet they gave themselves permission frequently and consistently.

Imagine if people like Helen Keller, Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi, Marie Curie, Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks waited for someone to give them permission before they took action. None of them would have achieved as much as they did. In all probability, they would have led unremarkable lives.

So who are you not to give yourself permission?

You could be just as amazing as the people I mentioned above and anyone else you find inspiring. How can you know if you don’t give yourself permission to achieve your goals? The only guarantee is that if you don’t give yourself permission to do what you want to do, you will be lucky to fulfil 1% of your potential.

That’s my single piece of clarity as I struggle towards my goals: my chances of success might be low, but if I don’t try, my chances are zero.

So I will continue making the effort to give myself permission, though it’s never easy, because it’s the only way I will achieve anything.

And that Arvon course I have been talking about? It took me over 3 years to give myself permission to apply. I kept making excuses, thinking I couldn’t cope with completing the course or that I stood no chance of getting a grant which would cover enough of the cost. I was wrong. Giving myself permission to do the course was one of the best decisions of my life.

Go ahead — give yourself permission to be fabulous!

Pushing Forward

One of the trickiest aspects of emerging from a period of mental illness, even if it’s emerging from an episode of intense symptoms into a less severe manifestation of mental illness, is finding a balance between pushing yourself forward and not pushing too hard. Placing a lot of pressure on yourself is counterproductive, since it increases the chance that you will fail to live up to your (unrealistic) expectations. Facing failure after mustering the courage to push yourself can be devastating — it can feel like the entire world is conspiring to push you back down.

Yet the alternative is worse: to never push forward, to stagnate.

Stagnation is destructive because even if you stay still, the world around you keeps changing. Time marches forward. If you do nothing for long periods of time, the prospect of being proactive becomes scarier because it is so long ago that you last tried. You cling to the relative comfort of stagnation just because it is familiar. You adopt an attitude of “better the devil you know” and convince yourself that setting goals is, at best, pointless.

The danger of becoming enmeshed in this mindset is that if you do find the courage to take a risk and it fails, you consider it proof that you were right all along and having goals is simply setting yourself up for failure. You lose perspective and begin to view failure as inevitable and unique to you. Everyone else succeeds; you fail.

But the truth is that everybody fails.

Life is a succession of failures and triumphs, big and small. Unfortunately, mental health problems tend to magnify the failures and dismiss the successes. Your sense of perspective becomes so warped that you think the supermarket selling out of your favourite snack is a sign that the world is against you, though you would never consider the other items on your shopping list being in stock as proof that the world is supporting your goals. The effect is emphasised when you considered that achieving many goals necessitates numerous failures: if your goal is to bench press 50kg and you currently struggle to lift 10kg, you are going to fail to lift 50kg multiple times until you finally achieve your goal.

I am trying to learn to embrace failure. If you fail a lot, it means you are doing a lot.

I have come across the “fail more” philosophy in several self-help/lifestyle advice books and while I wholeheartedly agree, it is bloody difficult to put into practice. For a start, the failures which form the foundations of people’s success are often hidden — we are told about the achievements, but not the years of hard work and thwarted goals which preceded someone’s success. Even when failures are mentioned, it is usually as a throwaway comment such as “X author had their book rejected by X number of publishers before it sold millions”. Unless you seek out the information because you have a specific interest, you rarely hear about the writers who complete several novels before getting sn agent or the writers whose books are dropped by their publishers because their popularity pales in comparison to the big hitters who top the bestsellers lists. Details of the struggles are disregarded whilst the “cinderella moment” is highlighted.

There are magical moments in life, but they are usually the result of hard work and a relentless willingness to seize opportunities.

There are also struggles after the magical moments. These can make us doubt ourselves just as much as initial failures; we wonder whether we are worthy of the success, whether we can live up to expectations. Again, few people openly discuss the struggles and failures which come after success. Those of us who are doubting ourselves after an achievement are left to assume that everyone else finds it easy.

As I mentioned in my last post, I have recently gotten a new job. It’s ideal in many ways, but I still lack confidence in my abilities. Some of its advantages have been revealed to be a double-edged sword: I can determine my own hours, as long as I meet the monthly minimum in my contract, but how much should I push myself? Not pushing myself enough would mean missing out on money, experience and perhaps opportunities. Pushing myself too far could be detrimental to my mental health, which is improving after a horrible and unanticipated nadir at the end of last year.

Finding balance is a learning curve. Just as I had to push myself forwards to avoid stagnation before I got the job, I need to continue to push myself forward without placing myself under too much pressure. Instead of obsessing over how much to push myself, I need to experiment and discover the balance which is best for me right now. I might feel like running away a lot of the time, but I would rathef face uncertainty than stagnation.

 

Easing into Change

I have been feeling a bit coy every time I mention this, but… I have a job. The first job I’ve had for over a decade. In fact, it’s the ideal job for me at the moment: it’s a writing job (CVs and cover letters), it’s freelance, the hours are flexible and I work from home. If all continues to go well over the next few weeks, I will be able to stop claiming ESA — which is one of my main goals for this year.

Yet, despite all of these advantages, I have been struggling with the transition. I am stressing out a lot because I really want this job to work out; because it would be devastating to fail when I am so close to achieving my goal. Part of me can’t believe that I have been given this opportunity, so I’m expecting it to be taken away at any monent. Getting into a routine has been difficult, too. I tend to either procrastinate or work nonstop for hours on end, neither of which is very healthy.

The whole experience is reminding me of the importance of transitions. Sometimes diving in head first is the right choice, but most transitions — especially if you have mental health problems — require slow, gradual changes. I’m trying to pace myself and build up the number of hours I work with each week, so that by the time I stop claiming benefits I will be earning enough to comfortably cover my expenses. In fact, that is the whole point of doing permitted work — to slowly reintroduce people with long-term illnesses or disabilities to work.

Part of me fights against this idea — I want to dive in and work as hard as I can for as many hours as I can — but I know that doing so would put my health at risk. It’s equivalent to a non-runner trying to run 10 miles every day. Stupid and counterproductive.

Instead, I am learning to be (even more) compassionate towards myself. I will not beat myself up for working too slowly or not working full time hours. I am not being stupid or lazy — I am in training for my future.