Leaping Forward

A year ago today, I started a 4 day trek to Machu Picchu. It was the biggest and most difficult challenge I have voluntarily undertaken, but also one of the best. While it didn’t immediately transform my life, as I had hoped, it has changed me in ways I’m just beginning to realise. The greatest effect is cutting through my excuses. I completed a major life goal, despite struggling with my mental health. Why shouldn’t I achieve more goals?

Parachuting
Photo credit: my dad, Darryl Jones.

In this spirit. I set myself a lot of goals this year. Some are boring and mundane (adding to savings, submitting more short stories), but a few are more exciting. One of them was to complete a tandem skydive from 15,000 feet.

follow As you can probably guess from the photo, I did the skydive yesterday — which happened to be my birthday. 

Last year, I spent my birthday doing an acclimatisation trek in Peru and being serenaded in a restaurant with the world’s longest version of Happy Birthday. I was surrounded by a wonderful group of people who have become my friends, but I was thousands of miles from home and had woken up very early, sobbing because I was scared I was making a huge mistake. I was worried I wasn’t capable of achieving any of my dreams, including walking miles up very high mountains.

My birthday this year was very different: I was at home and spent the day with my parents. However, I also wanted it to be as memorable as last year, so I scheduled the skydive and hoped for good weather.

Although the skydive was on a much smaller scale than Machu Picchu, it involved a lot of preparation. My first task was to get under the 210lb weight limit (the website says you can jump if you are heavier, but you have to tell them in advance and pay a surplus, so I wanted to avoid that), which was a big commitment since I started the year at 244lbs. I weighed in at 201.5lb yesterday morning and a few pounds heavier in my clothes and trainers when I got to the airfield, which was a relief!

I also needed to have my doctor sign a medical form to state that I was allowed to jump, because I have received treatment for mental health problems within the past 2 years and have a history of self-harm. I had an appointment a couple of weeks ago and my GP declared that I was at no extra risk compared to any fit, healthy person.

I understand the reasons for needing my GP to sign the form, but it feels disempowering to be told that I can’t sign my own medical form. I know my own mind very well precisely because I have mental health issues. Managing my mental health effectively involves monitoring my mood and motivation for doing certain activities. Far from being a form of self-harm or method to boost fragile self-esteem, the skydive was my way of celebrating my achievements and rewarding myself for getting through the almost constant struggles.

buy modafinil us Because I still struggle. Every small achievement, from walking the dog on my own to completing an assignment, involves facing my anxiety, depression and BPD and managing my current symptoms. 

My symptoms are less apparent to other people nowadays; partly because they have lessened in intensity, but mostly because I am much better at managing them. I was anxious yesterday, for example, but didn’t appear more nervous than anyone about to be hurled out of a plane for the first time. I was focusing on controlling my breathing and being mindful, rather than listening to my worries and letting them escalate — though, truth be told, my anxiety disorder is concentrated on the possibility of humiliation rather than harm or death, so I was more worried about doing the wrong thing or puking!

Tandem skydive
Photo credit: my instructor at Skydive Buzz

In addition to being a celebration and reward, skydiving was also a reminder that I need to take chances in order to experience fun and excitement. I need to leap forward, despite being anxious and having other obstacles in my way. I may never “recover” from my mental health problems, but I can manage them alongside achieving goals and chasing my dreams.

I think the main difference between my life now and the episodes during which I was trapped by my mental illness, is that my fears have shifted. I am more afraid of not trying to achieve my goals than the potential for humiliation. I’m more scared of spending the rest of my life confined to the house than chasing my dreams. I’m still fearful of failure and rejection, but my greatest fear is living without trying to create a better life for myself.

Tastylia Portugal Which is another change: I believe I’m worth the effort.

I used to hate myself and thought I deserved nothing, but that has gradually changed over the past 10 years and the change has accelerated since I trekked to Machu Picchu. It started with asking for help when I needed it and investing in myself, going to university after thinking I had “missed out” on the opportunity. Then I realised I could contribute to the world, through volunteering and using my skills to help local charities/organisations. Most of all, I gave myself permission to dream again, to consider the possibility of a different life.

Along the way, I have met more people who believe in me. I have had small successes which confirm that I’m worthy of support and investment, contribute a lot and can achieve things I once considered impossible for me. 

Sure, my life looks very different to how I expected and what I would have chosen, but you work with what you’ve got. I still struggle, but the truly awesome days I enjoy make the weeks and months of struggles less important than the triumphs. When I look back on my Machu Picchu trek, I don’t dwell on the panic attacks, throat infection, rain and altitude sickness: I remember arriving at the Sun Gate with my fellow trekkers, achieving our goal.

Taking It In Your Stride

“Just take it in your stride.” Good advice, right? Nobody wants to be derailed by obstacles and challenges. However, those of us who have mental health problems can find it difficult (often impossible) to take things in our stride.

Even small and/or anticipated problems can knock us off course. Setbacks seem to confirm the negative beliefs we hold or have held about ourselves:

“I am a failure and always will be.”

“I’m not good enough.”

“I can’t cope.”

We feel people are judging us for making mistakes or not being able to cope with our problems. Our thoughts can spiral out of control, so that a tiny setback leads us to think our entire lives are catastrophes.

 

So how can you help someone gain perspective?

First of all, please don’t contradict what they are saying. You may think you are showing the person concerned that they don’t need to worry, but minimising and dismissing other people’s problems is unhelpful and potentially harmful. They are already judging themselves for not being able to take the situation in their stride; suggesting their problems are unimportant and they are therefore overreacting piles on more judgment. It may not be your intention to belittle them, but that’s how your words can be perceived.

By not being sensitive to how the person in question feels, you imply that their emotional reaction is the problem. This can be easily translated as “I am the problem”, thus confirming their negative beliefs and leaving them feeling worse.

Instead, try a more compassionate and productive approach:

1. Acknowledge how they feel. They are entitled to their emotions and none of us can control our emotional reactions, though we can learn to control how we express our feelings, emotions and thoughts. Don’t start giving advice straightaway — listen.

2. Try to understand their perspective. Keep listening. Ask questions to clarify how they feel. Try to connect and empathise, so that you can learn why they believe the problem, challenge or setback is a disaster.

3. Support them. Let them know you will help in any way you can and reassure them that they can improve the situation. If they ask for advice, give it, but don’t dictate what you think they should do. Ask them questions which help them consider their options and plan their own course of action — if they feel able to take action.

 

Check your language.

An issue I have encountered a lot when talking about my problems is people dismissing my concerns, often implying that because my life has improved since my worst periods of depression and anxiety, my current situation shouldn’t bother me. I’m sure most people don’t intend to make me feel worse, but many phrases which are supposed to be reassuring can have darker implications.

For example, “look how far you’ve come” can be motivating if someone is in a positive frame of mind, but can also be interpreted as “you should be grateful for the improvements in your life and not expect more.” I find it especially patronising when spoken by people who have led relatively “normal” lives, usually when they try to tell me that my current situation is better than I think — as though I have no right to be frustrated about my mental health, financial situation and living with my parents.

Other phrases which people think are motivating or reassuring, but actually leave a lot of us feeling worse, include:

“There are plenty of people worse off than you.” True, but there are many people better off than me — including the people who like to “remind” me that things could be worse.

“Things will change soon.” Maybe, but often nothing significant seems to change for years on end.

.”You’re lucky to have X.” Again, braodly true, but when X is my dog or parents who haven’t chucked me out on the street, it feels like whoever says this is scraping the barrel.

Before you try to reassure someone, consider:

1. Are they in the right frame of mind to hear this without misinterpreting it? Often, people just want to be heard. They aren’t expecting you to solve their problems or give them a pep talk. They may want to vent or express their emotions without being told they should feel differently.

2. Would hearing this actually help them? In most cases, especially when emotions are high, the answer is no. When I’m depressed, the most inspiring stories can make me feel worse because I feel so pathetic and unable to change.

 

What can you do if you can’t take things in your stride?

Try to stay afloat. Practice self-care and do what you can to stop things getting worse.

If you can, that is. Sometimes problems and setbacks can make us feel as though we are drowning and we can’t stop struggling. Instead of letting go and hoping we rise to the surface, we try to cling to things in desperation — though clinging to them will keep us trapped underwater for longer. We cling to unhealthy relationships, harmful habits and negative beliefs. We can keep clinging, or we can let go and accept our current situation.

Acceptance is bloody hard, but it’s the only way we can stay afloat. And unless we learn to stay afloat first, our attempts to swim against the tide and change our lives will keep sucking us under. It’s a lesson I’m learning over and over.

Berating yourself (and the world in general) gets you nowhere, because you get sucked down into the same old negative thought patterns. Practicing self-care and self-love lead to acceptance. Unfortunately, as the word “practice” suggests, it’s difficult to learn to love and care for yourself, so you need to pay attention and take active steps on a regular basis.

If you feel unable to cope, please seek help and support. Your GP is a good first port of call, but there are also various helplines, therapists and counsellors. Talking to a trusted friend or family member and asking them to help you access appropriate sources of support is a good idea.

 

Long term strategy.

When you have chronic mental health issues, feeling blown off course by life events which others seem to take in their stride is a frequent occurrence. I think the trick is to recognise when you need to stop swimming and float for a while.

Doing this can feel like you are taking a step backwards, but it actually prevents you from losing progress.

Constantly swimming against the tide is exhausting, so we all need a break sometimes. If you are experiencing mental health problems, you may need more breaks than other people — perhaps more than you would like — but it’s essential to float when you need to float. In fact, it’s the best strategy for your long term success and fulfilment.

Self-care helps you to swim further in the long run 🙂

Reconnecting with Goals

February is a great time to reconnect with your goals, because the “new year, new you” hype is subsiding and you can gauge which of your New Year Resolutions are actually important to you. You have over a month’s feedback on how you have approached your goals. You might have made huge progress on some, while others have fallen by the wayside — and now is the time to figure out why.

Stepping stones

How do your goals make you feel?

Are you excited by them? Scared of them? Frustrated that you haven’t made more progress? Feeling any emotion at all is a good sign, because it means you care about the goal. It’s not something you have chosen arbitrarily.

Examine these emotions. Ask yourself why you are feeling each particular emotion. Sometimes this will be straightforward: you might be excited by your goal to start a particular course because it’s something you have wanted to do for a long time and you are passionate about te subject. Sometimes you will have to pick apart the thoughts and beliefs you hold about a particular goal to figure out why you are feeling an emotion.

Here is an example of a more complex process of unpacking an emotion: you feel angry about your goal to lose weight. You want to lose weight to be healthier and aren’t feeling pressured by anyone else, so why are you angry? What does the goal say about you? It says you are carrying excess weight (in your opinion), so what beliefs do you hold about this excess weight? You might think it means you have been lazy or greedy. You used to be slim and fit, but you have let yourself down. You are angry because you gained weight and now you have to make an effort to lose it.

If you are experiencing negative emotions in relation to your goals, see if you can reframe your feelings. Anger, in the above example, could be channelled into determination if you make an effort to be more compassionate towards yourself and stop focusing on the weight gain. Fear is often mixed with excitement — they share a lot of symptoms, like an increased heartbeat and feeling jittery — so practice telling yourself you are excited when you feel scared. It’s a different way of interpreting the uncertainty of what will happen when you work towards your goal.

 

Why did you choose your goals?

It’s easy to set goals which don’t really matter to you. We all get influenced by the people in our lives and society in general. We convince ourselves that achieving a particular goal will make us happy, because that’s how it’s sold to us.

Think about why you selected your goals. Are you hoping it will have potential side effects, such as making you more confident or assertive? If so, why not choose a goal to work on these side effects? It would give you a greater chance of success. Focus on guaranteed results (or as close as you can get): losing weight might or might not improve your confidence, but it will make you healthier if you choose an appropriate target and methods. Finishing writing your novel probably won’t result in a fantasy publishing deal, but it will help you develop your craft and increase your chances of success.

Having a clear vision for why you chose each goal will help you to stay on track when your motivation slips. If it’s someone else’s vision or a vision you know is a lie, it ain’t going to work.

 

Recommit, adapt, sideline or drop.

Use the information you gathered from asking yourself the above questions to decide whether to keep pursuing your goals. There is no shame in dropping goals if they are not what you want. It’s fine to sideline goals which you would like to tackle in future, but can’t or don’t want to prioritise now. Adapting goals isn’t cheating; it’s about refining them so they resemble what you want and how you want to approach them.

Rewrite your goals, even if you haven’t changed them, and recommit to working towards them. Reconnect with your whys. Visualise both working towards and achieving your goals. Be motivated by them. Imagine how you will feel when you achieve your goals.

Don’t judge your goals. So what if they might seem too big or too small to other people? These are your goals and they should be all about you,.

A goal is simply something you want. It can be exotic or mundane. Easy or difficult. Safe or adventurous. Try not to care about what other people think (I know, easier said than done…) and remember, you don’t need to share your goals with anyone who might be unsupportive. You are changing your life — you’re the person who gets the final say on what you want.

 

Sort out your steps.

You don’t need to plan every stage of working towards your goal, but it helps. If nothing else, have a broad idea of the route. There will be inevitable detours and obstacles, but mapping the terrain will help you stay on track.

The most important thing is to plan your first steps. Make them small and easy, so you can cut through your excuses. If you need money to achieve your goal, your first step could be arranging a few extra hours at work or cutting a couple of nonessentials from your budget. Once you complete the first few steps, figure out the next few.

Take action and keep taking action. It’s simple, but it’s not easy.

When you feel demotivated, remind yourself of your whys and keep taking action. Even if it feels pointless. Keep moving. You might not feel like you are making progress, but simply working towards your goal is an achievement in itself. There will be setbacks and times when you feel like you haven’t made progress for weeks or months. You will get angry, frustrated and disappointed from time to time. No matter — just keep breaking down your goal into tiny steps and don’t stop.

 

Cut through your own bullshit.

We are brilliant at lying to ourselves. We say we are working towards our goals when we haven’t made progress in ages. We tell ourselves we haven’t achieved our goals because we lack money, time or good mental health. We give up on goals because believing they are too hard is easier than giving them a fair shot.

Be aware of your favourite excuses and be ready to knock them down whenever they crop up. If your goals have fallen to the wayside, be honest with yourself as to why that is. Have your priorities changed? Are you scared of failure or success? Have you psyched yourself out because your goal seems too complicated?

Stop kidding yourself. If you think you need more time/money/better health to achieve your goal, incorporate those mini-goals into your ultimate goal. Or figure out a way to achieve your goal without getting those things. Seriously. There are millions of examples of people who have achieved goals without having access to resources we view as necessary. Why shouldn’t you do the same?

If you no longer want to pursue your goal — and you’re being honest with yourself about it — have the courage to admit it. Don’t keep saying you want it when you have generated more excuses than action steps. You are allowed to stop, even if you have invested a lot of time, money and energy. Even if other people have sacrificed a lot. Spending more time, money and energy on a goal you no longer want to achieve is pointless, more likely to lead to failure and soul-destroying.

Bullshitting yourself uses up a lot of energy, so save that energy for the stuff you really want to do.

 

Choose your own path.

Setting and working towards goals is a personal endeavour. That’s why it’s important to connect with your goals and stay connected. If your heart isn’t in it, don’t waste your time — choose to do something you will actually enjoy and find fulfilling.

If you are choosing to abandon your New Year Resolutions now it’s February, examine why. Have you honestly stopped wanting to achieve your goals in the past five weeks? Did you choose a goal based on what you thought you should want? Or are you trying to convince yourself you don’t really want to achieve your goals because they involve a lot of hard work and potential failure?

Everyone is scared of failure, even those of us who try to embrace it. I know it’s a cliché to say the only sure way to fail is to never try, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Another cliché that’s true: we tend to regret the stuff we never tried, not the stuff we tried and failed to do. I try to celebrate failure nowadays, because it’s a sign that I’m trying to change my life — after years of being resigned to misery and despair, it’s refreshing.

So set forth and follow your own path, because you can’t live your life in the constant maelstrom of paying more attention to other people’s opinions and judgements than your own goals and desires. And have you noticed that people who ridicule failure the most, tend to be those who are too scared to work towards significant goals?

Upgrading, Not Transforming

Happy new year! I’m sorry I haven’t blogged for ages. My depression got worse before Christmas and once I was feeling better, I had a lot of work and studying with which I needed to catch up. It’s been difficult, but the worst is over and I feel better for the days getting (gradually) longer and lighter.

I find it interesting that everyone seems to be divided at the start of a new year: they either buy into the “new year, new you” thing or rail against it. Personally, I believe both approaches have their benefits and a moderate approach is best. You are perfectly good as you are and self-acceptance is important, but there is a lot of value in setting and working towards goals.

I have a list of things I would like to achieve this year, but I’m also trying to appreciate my life as it is.

I have a lot of things to be grateful for, not least of which is having the opportunity to achieve (what I considered to be) a major life goal last year. I also feel I belong in my own life more, which is hard to explain. I suppose it’s about feeling as though I am doing meaningful things and contributing to the world in my own small way.

 

My approach: upgrading

I have been frustrated in the past (the recent past, too) that achieving a big goal hasn’t totally transformed my life. I know it was unrealistic to have those expectations, but I’m human and I tend to think “I would be so much happier and more successful if only I could do X.” I *think* I have finally learnt that while certain accomplishments or experiences may change my life, this is most likely to happen gradually rather than overnight.

Take trekking to Machu Picchu, for instance. I didn’t quite believe I could do it, right up to the point that I arrived at the Sun Gate, but I had all these assumptions about what it would mean if I did reach my goal. I thought I would be fearless, confident, unstoppable. I thought I would be able to change my life within weeks of returning home. I thought it would change me.

And it has changed me, but not as much or as quickly as I had hoped. I am more confident, although I still struggle at certain and in certain situations. I know I’m capable of committing to a huge goal and achieving it. Even of 99% of what I attempt results in failure, I know success is possible.

I alluded to the biggest change in my life in the openings paragraph of this post — my trek inspired me to embark on a Psychology BSc with the Open University. I have no idea what impact it will have on my life, but I know it’s a step in the right direction. I will probably be able to join the dots only in hindsight, several years or more down the line. All I know is that studying is the right thing for me to do for now and it will provide me with more opportunities.

I have decided to view changes like my Psychology course as upgrades. They haven’t transformed my life, but they have set me on a path which may lead to transformation.

I have also decided to view my goals for 2018 as upgrades. Achieving all of my goals may not change my life a great deal, certainly not on a daily basis, but my life will improve. I hope to end this year fitter, healthier and with better finances. I probably won’t be able to solve the major problems in my life (poor mental health, a lot of debt, living with my parents), but I can make improvements.

 

Focusing on the process

A major lesson which life has taught me over and over again is that I can’t control the results of anything — I can only control what I do. I find this easier to accept in some areas of my life more than others.

Submitting short stories, for example. I know I can’t control whether my story will win a prize or get published; all I can to is submit it to the competition or literary journal. However, I got very frustrated when obstacles threatened my Machu Picchu trek. It was annoying, being on a once-in-a-lifetime challenge and struggling with altitude sickness, panic attacks and a throat infection. It wasn’t fair. But every time I started thinking about the unfairness, I had a panic attack. This made my situation worse. The only way I could make progress was to focus on the process, putting one foot in front of the other without thinking about how hard it was or how much further I had to go.

So my goals for 2018 are all about focusing on the process. I won’t bore you by listing them, but suffice to say that they are all within my control and achieving them should be possible as long as I focus on execution and not results.

Getting caught up in results often harms execution. For instance, if your goal is to lose weight and you have a specific time frame in mind, it can be demotivating when you have a disappointing week. You convince yourself you’re off track, even if you have been following your eating and exercise plan. You might wonder why you bother and get sucked into a downward spiral, comfort eating so much that you jeopardise the next week’s weight loss. Chances are your disappointing weigh-in was down to normal weight fluctuation, but focusing on it and losing sight of the process can turn a blip into an abandoned goal.

Focusing on the process doesn’t mean you ignore the results: it’s about giving the process a fair shot before you change or abandon it. 

The type of results for which you are aiming also bear consideration. How much are they within your control? Weight loss, for example, is within the control of most of us. While you may have medical conditions which make it harder to lose weight, it’s possible for most people (with some exceptions; I’m not denying that). You may have to tackle psychological issues and/or physical problems along the way, but you can do it. Other results are almost completely outside your control: winning a Nobel Prize or getting married to a celebrity you fancy, for example. These are not good goals, because you will be setting yourself up for disappointment (again, with a few exceptions).

 

Prioritising a healthy attitude

The biggest problem for me is that working towards goals can trigger my mental health problems. Facing a setback can exacerbate my depression and/or anxiety. I can quickly convince myself that I’m doomed to failure and might as well give up.

Conversely, working towards goals also has a positive impact on my mental health. It gives my life meaning and purpose. It bolsters my self-esteem and helps me develop resilience. 

Bearing this in mind, I have to be careful about how I approach goals. I need to keep a sense of perspective and remind myself of the progress I have already made, both towards a particular goal and in other areas of my life. I know my red flags — becoming obsessed about a goal, letting a goal affect my mood — so when my attitude is becoming unhealthy, I can stop and remind myself of what is most important in my life, i.e. maintaining the optimal level of mental health I can at any time.

I like using charts to measure my progress, especially those that focus on the process. For example, ticking or colouring in a box every time I go for a run or put £5 in my savings account. Having a visual representation of my progress helps me to keep perspective. Plus there’s something really satisfying about ticking or colouring a box!

 

Will you join me?

I believe setting goals is a (note: not the) key to a healthy and fulfilling life. I get sick of all the “new year, new you” stuff, especially when I see adverts claiming that losing weight will have magical effects on your life (I lost a lot of weight in the past and it didn’t make me happier or more successful and though I was physically healthier, my mental health was worse). However, I also know that almost everything I like about my life has been created through setting goals. Even when I haven’t achieved a goal, I have learnt from the process and often made progress.

So I encourage you to set healthy, exciting goals which will lead you closer to your ideal life.You might want to change your life completely, but change starts with improving the areas of your life which matter most to you. These small improvements snowball over time and lead to you doing things you never believed possible.

Go for it. You can make your life a little better. You might transform your life this year, but you might not — and that’s okay. Good luck!

Accumulating Expertise

Living with long term mental health problems involves a lot of trial and error. While some treatments and strategies have a high success rate in general, the only way to find out what works for you is experimentation – repeated experimentation. Strategies can vary in their effectiveness, both across time and in different situations. Some treatments are more difficult to access than others, such as talking therapies, which can be all but impossible to secure over long periods of time unless you can afford to pay for a private therapist or counsellor. Sometimes life gets in the way of your ability to implement strategies. During particularly bad episodes, nothing seems to work.

 

Capturing Information

One of the most challenging aspects of mental health is its pervasiveness. It affects every area of your life: career, finance, relationships, fitness, etc. – all of which also affect your mental health. Combined with fluctuations in symptoms, these factors make it difficult to assess the effectiveness of the various treatments and strategies you use to manage your mental health. Pinpointing correlations is difficult, let alone determining potential causes and effects.

Recording information about your symptoms, treatments and coping strategies presents more challenges. When you are experiencing a bad episode, symptoms saturate your everyday life and making notes is the last thing on your mind. When you feel relatively well, recording information seems like an unnecessary hassle. Achieving any level of consistency is improbable.

There are also benefits and disadvantages to different types of record keeping. Writing in a journal is my preferred method, because it helps me to process my thoughts and feelings. It captures a lot of rich, complex information and gives me insights into my mental health which would not otherwise be recorded. However, using a journal takes time to write and more time to review. Since the information is purely qualitative, it can be difficult to measure progress or decline.

Another popular method of tracking mental health is using a system which asks you to rate your mood and/or other symptoms at regular intervals. You can do this through using an app or one of the questionnaires used by mental health professionals, such as the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale. Bear in mind that when an assessment tool is designed to be used by professionals, it may not be user-friendly or suitable for self-assessment. If you would like to try the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale, the NHS has a handy guide for using it to assess yourself: http://www.nhs.uk/Tools/Documents/Wellbeing%20self-assessment.htm

The main drawback of using a quantitative rating or tracking system is that the information captured is reductive. It tells you nothing about the context of your symptoms, unless you make additional notes. These systems are best used in combination with qualitative information – at the very least, noting which treatments/strategies you are using and any major contextual factors, like whether you have been having family problems or have an important deadline looming. However, it provides measurements which you can evaluate over time to spot patterns and determine which treatments/strategies work for you.

Full disclosure: I think tracking your mental health with quantitative methods is a great idea in theory, but it hasn’t worked for me in practice. I used an app called Moodtrack for a while and it was useful – when I remembered and felt able to use it. It allows you to make notes when you assess your mood, so you can record other symptoms, any activities in which you are engaged, external influences, current preoccupations… anything which you think might have an impact on your mental health. The information is easy to review, but doesn’t give me the same insights as journaling. Neither does tracking my mood and symptoms improve my mood in the short term, whereas using a journal makes me immediately feel better.

 

Research and Development

Finding the strategies which work for you involves a vital first step: being aware of potential strategies. You can learn about what works for other people from a variety of sources, including books, forums, blogs, social media and chatting – just beware of people who portray a certain treatment or strategy as a miracle cure. Most people find they have to use a variety of treatments and strategies to manage their mental health, although one or two strategies may be at the core of their approach.

Try to keep an open mind when considering strategies; often, activities which seem insignificant or a little strange can have a big impact. For example, meditation is frequently dismissed as being too hippy-dippy or a waste of time, but scientific studies and anecdotal evidence testify to its efficacy. You may not realise the value of a strategy until you stop doing it, which is what happened when I failed to use my SAD lamp regularly last winter. It’s fine to give up on strategies if they are too time-consuming or otherwise impractical, but commit to giving them a fair shot first.

Choose one or two strategies at a time: trying to incorporate too many at once is tricky, puts you under too much pressure and makes it difficult to tell which strategies (if any) are having a positive effect. Start with the ones which you think might make the most difference to you, or which are easiest for you to implement. Activities which don’t need any special equipment, like walking and meditation, are good starting points. Strategies which can be done inside your home also tend to be more accessible, like mindfulness colouring and yoga.

Anything you can do to make it easier to try certain strategies is a great idea. This could mean exercising with a friend for support, joining a class to keep motivated or setting reminders on your phone for self-care activities. Think about what you need. What are your particular preferences and obstacles? Selecting strategies which you believe you will enjoy is a good way to ensure you keep doing them long enough to assess their effects. Think about how you can increase the enjoyment factor of specific strategies, such as listening to your favourite music when you run.

Keep reading about mental health, but remember that you can find strategies which can help you to manage your mental health in other fields. For example, I find that decluttering lifts my mood and helps reduce my anxiety. I also feel better when I watch films, read and study. You may discover that different strategies work at different time, so have another shot at strategies which previously haven’t worked for you to see if anything has changed. This was the case for me with running: I tried it in my late teens and hated it, but now use it (along with other types of exercise) as one of my core strategies.

 

Expectations and Judgments

Mental health problems can be unpredictable. Everything can be going well and then, without warning, your symptoms worsen and your mental health plummets. It isn’t fair and you think there must be a logical reason for the decline, so you blame yourself. Maybe you didn’t implement your strategies as well as you could have, or you think you should have done more. You expected your mental health to improve or remain constant, but it didn’t – so you judge yourself for failing to live up to your expectations.

In an ideal world, you would be full of self-compassion and never judge yourself, expecting nothing and accepting everything with gratitude. That obviously isn’t going to work in real life: it is normal and natural to feel frustrated, angry and disappointed when your mental health dips. We grow up with the myth that if we work hard, we will be rewarded. We don’t like to be reminded that this isn’t always true, especially when we are the ones disproving the myth. Mental illness sucks precisely because you can everything to the best of your ability, incorporating coping strategies and seeking treatment when needed, only to slide into another awful episode.

I haven’t found a solution which enables me to control my expectations and stop judging myself – but I’m better than I used to be. You have to keep reminding yourself that you are not to blame for your mental illness. You have to try to enjoy the relatively good episodes and appreciate them. Most of all, you have to keep hoping you will get the balance right.

 

Achieving Balance

Managing long term mental health conditions is a balancing act. There will be times when you wobble and times when you topple over; the trick is learning how to regain balance. Picking yourself up after a bad episode is horrible. It feels like all your hard work has been erased and you are back to square one. But this is never true.

Every time a bad episode knocks you off balance, you learn something. It can take a long time to realise what you have learnt, but it is true. Every time you dust yourself off and manage your mental health well enough to see infinitesimal improvements in your symptoms, you learn something. Maybe you learn that you are stronger and more resilient than you believe. Or perhaps you find support in unexpected places, from new friends or acquaintances who have always been at the periphery of your life but now step up to help. You might learn about which values contribute to your wellbeing, finding hope in creativity, generosity or nurturing.

I think experiencing long term mental health issues is a process of learning. You are accumulating expertise about yourself and your particular mental health problems. You learn about what feeling mentally well means for you and which strategies help you get there. You learn to notice when your symptoms worsen and you need to increase self-care activities. You learn when to ask for help and what help you need.

You learn a lot about other people, too. You learn that some people are insensitive bastards who spread negativity wherever they go. You learn that others are ignorant and have no idea what impact their words and behaviour have on vulnerable people. You learn that some people are spiteful and will use your mental illness as an excuse to bully and abuse you.

However, you also learn that a lot of people are kind and caring. There are people who dedicate huge amounts of their time to helping you, both in official capacities and through friendship. You learn that your true friends will listen without dismissing your problems or telling you about people who are worse off. You learn who you can rely on for support during the darkest times, when you can’t even trust yourself.

Most of all, you learn a great deal about yourself when you experience mental health problems. It forces you to examine your life and what you would like it to be. You learn that you can cope with more than you thought possible. You learn about true strength, courage and confidence, which are not about presenting yourself as imperturbable and indestructible, but are about following your own path even when you feel like giving up.

Accumulating expertise in your own life is hard work and difficult, but brings many rewards. It helps you deal with the bad times, but also helps you seize opportunities during the good times. It helps you to recognise your vulnerability as strength and develop empathy for others. It helps you to live your life.

Changing Tides

It’s the end of summer and everything feels distinctly autumnal. I’m particularly sensitive to this feeling because my mental health usually dips over the winter months, plus there are a couple of major beginnings and endings on the horizon.

Seascape

An Ending

I’m approaching the “end” of my current novel. I have been rewriting it for several months and hope to have it in decent shape within a month. Of course, the “end” will hopefully be the beginning, if I’m fortunate enough to attract an agent. If I’m even luckier and get a publishing deal, there will be a lot of extra work ahead, including more rewriting and editing.

Yet completing the novel means letting go. It means exposing it to readers — potential agents, publishers, competition judges, editors, perhaps people who decide to buy the book (if it gets published). I will have to send it out into the world.

My main concern isn’t receiving criticism of my writing: I’m used to criticism and rejections, which are inevitable for every writer. In fact, I prefer getting constructive criticism rather than a vague “not for us” rejection. I like to know how my writing comes across; how I can improve. I want to get better at writing and critiques are essential if I am to improve.

I suppose I’m worried that the novel might have no potential. That I’m wasting my time trying to write novels. There might be a fear of moving on to the next and trying to apply the lessons I have learnt. What if I can’t improve? What if I never write a publishable novel?

Perhaps the real problem is the uncertainty. If a time traveller from 2020 (or beyond) told me my current novel was terrible and never published, I would just shrug and move on. I would consider it a time-consuming but worthwhile exercise, helping me to learn my craft — like my last attempt at writing a novel. If the time traveller told me it got published and was reasonably well received, I would be ecstatic. I don’t like not knowing.

Ending a major phase of any project makes me feel reflective. I question my goals and achievements. I fence with self-doubt. I worry that I won’t complete the next phase, that things will go wrong or that I’m just not good enough. Mental illness takes these normal feelings and blends them with my symptoms, creating a lot of turmoil. It can be intense, but I can ride it out.

 

 

A Beginning.

I will start my Psychology BSc with the Open University in October. I’m excited, but also nervous — which I suppose is normal. It’s a big commitment, since studying will form a large proportion of my life for the next 5 years, but it’s also incredibly important to me.

I wouldn’t be so nervous if I didn’t care. I’m worried that my mental health will affect my studies because I want to learn as much as I can. I don’t want to put my studies on hold or scrape through by the skin of my teeth. I want to be able to engage with the material and complete assignments to the best of my ability.

I’m especially wary because of past experience. When I did my Film Studies BA, a decline in my mental health in the final year (not helped by also being diagnosed with a serious eye condition which could lead to blindness) meant my grades dropped by 10%. I went from being on course for a 1:1 from the first semester, earning a Dean’s Commendation in my second year, to getting a good-but-disappointing 2:1. I know I should be proud to have done so well when facing tough challenges, but it’s frustrating when my mental health prevents me from doing my best.

I appreciate the irony of worrying about my mental health affecting my degree, when my experience of mental illness has motivated my decision to study Psychology. I’m fed up with repeating the same patterns, battling and working like mad only to fall short in the end. Yes, I do the best I can in my particular circumstances, but that’s not very reassuring when I know I’m capable of more.

I hope studying Psychology will be a fresh start. My mental health is better (in general) than it has been for a long time and I have good coping strategies. Grades and results aren’t as important to me nowadays — instead of setting out to prove something to myself (and/or others who doubt me), I want to use what I learn to help myself and others.

 

Adjusting

I want to change my life, which involves a large degree of uncertainty and a lot of learning to cope with the effects. The changing seasons emphasise how life follows cycles; how natural it is to change direction and evolve. However, accepting — even embracing — the inevitability of change doesn’t make it easy.

When you have mental health issues, it feels like your whole life is filtered through them — determined by them, at the worst points. It’s annoying and frustrating. It can make you feel sad, angry, hopeless. I often wish I had never experienced mental illness.

But… without experiencing mental health problems, I doubt I would have tried to write a novel or studied the subjects I’m truly passionate about at university. I often feel like I’m not living a full life, because mental illness prevents me from doing so many “normal” things, yet many perfectly healthy people lead half-lives and don’t follow their dreams. They limit themselves and don’t set goals or take risks. If I didn’t have mental health issues, I think I may have been one of those people.

 

 

What If You Don’t Have a Dream?

Last week, someone called James left an interesting comment on my post You Need to Chase Your Dreams, asking what if you don’t have any dreams? I wrote an extensive reply, which you can read by scrolling down to the comments section at the bottom of the post, but the question lingered in my mind. What if you don’t have any dreams?

Apple blossom and sky

This post is inspired by James’s comment and the thoughts his question generated. I hope you find it helpful.

1. Check your definition of “dream”.

I use the word “dream” when I talk about my most significant goals in life. These goals aren’t necessarily “big” or extraordinary. Some of them are very mundane — to the extent that other people take them for granted, considering them all but inevitable. For me, these types of dreams include living independently. For others, they encompass marriage, children, a steady job, etc.

The significance of your dreams might not be apparent to other people; that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you prioritise what you most want from life, whatever that happens to be.

 

2. Consider the impact of your mental health at any given time.

My dreams take a backseat during particularly bad episodes of mental illness — to the extent that they almost don’t exist. If this is the case for you, focus on anything you can do right now: big life dreams can wait until you can manage your mental health better. Sometimes coping with mental illness is just about trying to get through the day.

However, don’t let your mental health become an excuse for not following your dreams. I know my mental health will be a huge factor in whether or not I can achieve some of my dreams, but I also know I can’t let “what ifs” stop me trying to achieve them. My philosophy is to do what I can, when I can .

 

3. Don’t limit yourself.

Consider the impossible. Seriously. What would you do if there were no limits? How would you spend your days?

When you come up with answers, figure out how you might achieve them — or something similar. You might want to win the lottery so you can spend all day reading or gardening or taking pictures of trains. Okay, winning the lottery is out of your control (once you buy a ticket, anyway), but can you find ways to include more of your favourite activities in your life right now? Are there career paths you can follow so you can earn a living doing what you love? Can you create your own career path?

The creativity and problem-solving involved in chasing your dreams is all part of the fun. It’s a valuable learning process and in addition to preparing for the realisation of your dreams, brings a lot of satisfaction and pleasure in itself. And the crazier your dream, the more complex — and fun — this process will be!

 

4. It’s okay to be content with your life as it is.

If you are happy, there is no need to seek out experiences and achievements you don’t want. We don’t have to spend our time setting goals and chasing dreams. I personally like setting and achieving goals, but acknowledge that not everyone is like me. If there is nothing you want to change about your life, that’s truly wonderful — enjoy it.

 

5. Consider ways to add value to your life and other peoples’ lives.

If you have no other dreams, make this your goal — whether on a small scale or a big one. Perform small acts of kindness, volunteer for chairty, participate in a fundraising challenge. Make the world a better place.

Living Option B

It’s inevitable that our plans go awry sooner or later, but for some of us the changes are so dramatic they throw our life off course.

Machu Picchu
My Option B looks like this. Sometimes.

This week, I read a book called Option B, which is co-written by Sheryl Sandberg. Sheryl is one of the world’s most prominent businesswomen and COO of Facebook. In 2015, her life was turned upside down when her husband, Dave, died suddenly at the age of 47. Option B is about how Sheryl learned to cope. Her cowriter, Adam Grant, is an author and academic with a PhD in organisational psychology. The book combines personal experience with psychological research and suggestions for how social and political changes could support people in difficult situations.

While bereavement is the book’s focal point, it addresses a range of issues and its lessons can be applied to a range of traumatic experiences. I found a lot of ideas to help me manage my mental health and the issues surrounding long term mental illness, but the main message I got from the book is: how do I kick the shit out of Option B?

The concept is simple: Option A would have been wonderful, but it’s not what happened. You are stuck with Option B, so how do you make the best of it?

For me, my Option A would have been a life unaffected by mental illness. Unlike many people, I never really lived this option for any period of time because my mental health problems began when I was a teenager. I have never held a job which wasn’t affected by my mental health. I have never lived independently. I have never met my friends in a pub without fighting anxiety. Sometimes I feel sorry for myself; I know it’s neither attractive nor helpful, but I wish I had gotten to live Option A.

But I got stuck with Option B: long term anxiety, depression and borderline personality disorder.

There are two broad options when you are living Option B. You can bemoan the fact that Option A is lost to you and waste your life wishing it were different. Or you can find ways to cope with Option B. Find moments of joy, even if lasting happiness seems impossible. Achieve goals, though simple tasks may seem impossible.

Strange as it sounds, I’m not sure I would have achieved many of my life goals if I weren’t stuck with Option B. I don’t think I would have done a Creative Writing MA or trekked to Machu Picchu. If life had been comfortable for me, I wouldn’t have found the motivation to stretch myself. If I had enjoyed the mundane success of a steady job and “normal” life, I doubt I would have found the courage to face failure in order to fulfil my biggest dreams.

Living Option B often means regarding things from a different perspective.

In the past, I have fallen into the habit of thinking “What can I do? I can’t even walk into a shop on my own.” I set myself up for failure and paralysed my progress by approaching the problem from a position of weakness. I answered my question with what seemed like the only choice: I can’t do anything. I struggle with normal things, let alone “proper” goals.

A more empowering perspective is to think “This is what I want to do – how could I do it?” This is how I try to approach my big goals, the dreams I really want to chase. It engages the part of your brain which wants to solve problems, because it presents a specific dilemma.

Disclaimer: being able to come up with options doesn’t mean any of them are easier. In fact, many are extremely difficult to follow – even when you know they are the best options. However, simply being aware of options is a huge step forward.

When you feel paralysed by anxiety (or any illness, situation or emotion), you are stuck in your current circumstances and can’t see a way out. Thinking about what you want and following potential paths to achieving your goals lets a little light in; it may not throw open a door straight in front of you, but it creates a chink of light which demarcates an exit. You can use that light to negotiate your way out, even if you have to overcome many obstacles to do so.

More Option Bs will keep cropping up.

Even when you are already living Option B, life can toss more shit your way. Problems can often cause other problems, such as long term illness resulting in debt because it limits your ability to earn. Sometimes your situation seems to be improving, then it takes a nosedive. None of this is inevitable, but it happens a lot.

Maintaining a positive attitude when living Option B is bloody difficult, but it makes your life a lot easier.

The book discusses ways to challenge thoughts which are personal, pervasive and permanent. This is based on the work of Martin Seligman, pioneer of positive psychology and a hero of mine. He discovered that people are less able to overcome adversity when they blame themselves (personal), believe everything in their lives will be negatively influenced (pervasive) and believe the results will last forever (permanent). It’s easy to get trapped into this way of thinking, even when you can acknowledge that it’s not helpful.

I’m guilty of being aware of these patterns of thinking, but not being consistent enough in challenging them. I know the theory, but struggle to apply it in practice. The problem with living Option B is that there is a huge source of adversity which does seem personal, pervasive and permanent. Mental illness, in particular, feels like it’s your fault/is punishing you personally, can affect all areas of your life and feels permanent when you have experienced it for many years. How can you challenge something so monolithic?

The answer appears to be: by chipping away at it. The obvious starting point is that nobody is to blame for their mental illness. Sure, maybe certain behaviours, thoughts and coping strategies contribute to the development and progression of mental illness, but nobody chooses it. We all do our best as we battle through and sometimes our ways of coping aren’t the best options, but seem to be the only or easiest options to which we have access at the time. Besides, sometimes people can do everything “right” and still become mentally ill.

We can chip away at pervasiveness and permanence by considering the fluctuations of mental illness. I have bad days, for sure, but I also have good days. My mental health also affects my life in different ways at different times: when my depression recedes, I often find more energy and motivation to exercise or work on my writing. When my anxiety improves, I can get out more, be more sociable and submit more of my work. Again, this chipping away might not seem like much progress, but it’s the chink of light which lets you know there is hope.

Acknowledging that you are living Option B can be refreshing.

It takes the pressure off. You realise comparing your Option B to other people’s Option A is futile. You aren’t constantly chasing after Option A, once you acknowledge that Option A is no longer available. Instead, you can focus on turning Option B into a happy, successful and fulfilling life.

I can’t turn back time and prevent my mental illness. I can’t magically transform myself into someone who managed to move out of her parents’ house in her early 20s and has held down a full time job for 10 years. But I can work on building a satisfying career which will hopefully enable me to earn a living one day. I can strive to achieve my goals and find moments of joy amongst the pain and despair of mental illness. I can learn coping strategies and manage my mental illness so that it causes me less pain and despair. I can chase my dreams and try to inspire other people to see the hope in their lives.

And that, my friends, is what I think the book means when it mentions kicking the shit out of Option B!

A Big Jump Forward

The other week, I said something in a counselling session that I’ve been thinking about a lot since I said it: “I feel like I have to take a jump off a cliff just to move forward one single step.”
Explore, dream, discover

I’m not sure whether needing to do something “big” in order to make any progress is a good thing. It puts me under a lot of pressure and “big” things are often expensive. However, when the other option is to stay stuck, being able to take that jump off a cliff is vital.

 

Jumping off a cliff requires a lot of motivation and a huge potential reward.

It’s a dangerous situation and failure can be catastrophic. If I hit the metaphorical rocks, my mental health would probably be affected in a very negative way. The same goes for smaller risks, which is why I often find it easier to take bigger risks — when the reward is small, it’s not worth putting my mental health on the line.

I know this is hard for people to get their heads around and I don’t claim to fully understand why I think like this, but I do. If I’m going to take any risk, there needs to be a good reason — preferably several reasons. There needs to be the possibility of achieving a massive goal and/or improving my life significantly. Usually, there also needs to be a push as well as a pull: the idea of never taking this particular risk is worse than trying and failing.

 

Logically, this means that failure doesn’t matter.

If the absolute worst option is to never take the risk, to never try to achieve the goal, then failure is the lesser of two evils. Following the argument through, it also means I shouldn’t be afraid of failure because it’s not the worst outcome.

For me, this is not the case: emotion overpowers logic.

I’m terrified of failure. I’m scared of not living up to my expectations and of disappointing other people. But my biggest fear is never trying to achieve anything worthwhile; giving up on my dreams and settling for a life which will never be fulfilling.

 

I’m hoping my Machu Picchu trek will be a success, but I think I’m beginning to appreciate the fact that I’m trying to achieve an important goal.

Note that I cannot (yet) feel proud of myself — but this acknowledgement is improvement! I talked about letting go of the fantasies surrounding my Machu Picchu challenge in my last post, and of being disappointed not to live up to these fantasies, but I guess they don’t matter as much as my trying to achieve them. I would love it if everything had gone my way, but it didn’t and instead of giving up, I’m still giving it my best shot.

Sidenote: I will be within £180 of my £1000 fundraising goal when I add pledged donations, so this is one fantasy which might come to fruition. If you would like to sponsor me to show your support for my challenge and human rights, please visit www.justgiving.com/fundraising/HayleyNJones You can do so anonymously and/or without publicising the amount. Every pound is appreciated. It would mean a lot to me personally to hit my original target and will help Amnesty International do more of their amazing work.

I can make more sense of my situation when I consider my reactions to a hypothetical third party: I would have more respect for someone who says “I tried to trek to Machu Picchu, but it didn’t work out and I failed” than someone who says “I always wanted to trek to Machu Picchu, but never tried.”

As much as I want to be able to say “I did it!” I would rather be the former hypothetical person than the latter. Anyone can have dreams and goals, but working towards them is what matters — ask any writer who has encountered someone who says “I always wanted to write a novel” and is expected to sympathise!

 

So here’s my big jump…

I fly to Peru tomorrow. I hope I land in open ocean, rather than on the rocks, but I’m glad I’m jumping — whatever happens.

Be Like a Bluebell

I took this photo because this is the first bluebell I’ve seen this year (a couple of weeks ago – I’ve since seen loads more). I thought I might use it in a blog post about hope or my relief that spring is easing my symptoms a little, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised how perfectly the picture demonstrates something else…

Bluebell
Bluebells are experts at showcasing themselves.

The contrast between their purple flowers (let’s face it – they are more purple than blue!) and green leaves makes them stand out. In the case of this particular bluebell, the surrounding plants are green and it stands out all the more. The colours complement each other and the spread of foliage acts as a backdrop. While a carpet of bluebells is spectacular, one alone can be stunning.

Bluebells also enhance each other, instead of competing, which is why the carpet effect is so spectacular. Being surrounded by other bluebells doesn’t detract from the beauty of a single one, but their beauty is multiplied through togetherness.

I think humans can learn a lot from bluebells.

We need to find ways to showcase ourselves and each other, working together instead of buying into a zero-sum philosophy which dictates that there must be winners and losers. A lot can be gained from a simple change in perspective: instead of criticising everyone and pointing out flaws, what if we actively look for things to praise?

Human brains love problem solving. As soon as you make a statement, your brain looks for evidence to support that statement. If you think “I am unlucky”, you can find dozens of examples as evidence. Likewise, if you think “I am lucky”, you will find dozens of examples. Neither is “true” because luck is a matter of perspective. This is why breaking out of negative thinking patterns is so difficult – your brain follows the well-trodden path and seeks evidence to convince you it’s the only path.

Taking a different approach doesn’t come easily, but it’s worth the effort. Seeking positives is empowering – both of yourself and others. When you start focusing on people’s strengths, including your own, opportunities come into view.

I have been trying to focus on my strengths recently, but it’s difficult. Not because I have none (though I certainly believe this at times, that’s just a symptom of my mental illness), but because our society seems so determined to knock people down. There is a constant stream of negativity from the media, social media, the general public, etc.

An article in the current issue of Mslexia, a writing magazine I otherwise love, the lead feature is about the financial difficulties writers face, especially in old age. It brings out the old “don’t give up the day job” advice, which is great for people without mental health problems who have a day job, but demoralising for those of us who are unable to work in the jobs most readily available, which all seem to involve a high degree of interaction with the public (not great for people with social anxiety). While the article goes on to explore a few solutions, I think it would have been much more interesting (and relevant) if it had taken a different approach: how can writers use their skills to earn a living and provide for their future?

I have discovered something interesting from my reading and talking to people: those who advise me to focus on my strengths and what I enjoy are happier and more successful.

I should clarify that I mean happy and successful according to their own terms. Many of us, believe it or not, don’t aspire to be millionaires. Sure, it would be nice, but money just isn’t a priority. If I could earn a living doing the work I love (which doesn’t mean loving every minute or every aspect of it, but loving it overall), I would be satisfied. I don’t need expensive holidays and designer shoes to make me happy (though both are appreciated!); I want to write and help people with mental health problems. Meanwhile, I’m trying to fight through the pessimism and find ways to help me achieve what I want.

I’m trying to focus my attention on what is helpful, instead of being demoralised by negative diatribes which assume everyone is physically and mentally capable of following the conventional path. I keep reminding myself to be like a bluebell, to show myself to my best advantage.

It’s also worth noting that while bluebells showcase themselves, they are not showy. They are modest flowers and all the more beautiful because of it. They don’t need to showboat, boast and seek attention. They quietly do their own thing and let their beauty shine for those who take the time to look. I think we can all learn a lot from bluebells.