Tag Archives: Depression

Seeking Perspective

To echo pretty much everyone, these are strange times. On the one hand, social distancing measures necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic make relatively little difference to my lifestyle, because having chronic mental health problems means I work from home most of the time and avoid socialising because my anxiety (and finances) make it difficult. On the other hand, I’m not used to everyone else being anxious and one of the symptoms of borderline personality disorder is a tendency to absorb other people’s moods, especially negative moods. I’m veering between feeling ‘normal’ because my mental health problems have become more normalised and sinking into pits of depression/anxiety/stress. Part of me wants to wail ‘I had so little in my life and now it’s been taken away’ but I read something on social media which resonated with me: now most people are experiencing a lot of anxiety, it’s time for those of us who have anxiety disorders to teach them how to manage it.

A mini disclaimer here: these are things which help me and may be inappropriate and/or inaccessible for some people. I’m not a mental health professional and this blog is based on my personal experiences, combined with things I have read or heard about helping others. It’s also worth bearing in mind that because there has never been a situation like this in living memory, there is a lot of uncertainty about what might help individuals manage their mental health and wellbeing. As this blog testifies, mental health management involves a lot of trial and error to discover what works for you. If you are in crisis and need help, please contact Samaritans or another appropriate source of help.

Here are some ways to try and find some perspective when you are anxious during a pandemic…

Find positives

I have a theory that difficult circumstances amplify people’s true natures. It’s not very scientific, but I keep seeing evidence of kind and generous people making efforts to be more kind and generous, whilst selfish bastards behave in increasingly selfish ways. Perhaps the people who display selfish behaviour have their reasons and I know I should try not to judge, but as someone who has spent time in hospital as a day patient and a visitor to an inpatient over the past 18 months, I have seen how under-resourced and pressured the NHS is at the best of times and I don’t understand why anyone would refuse to follow guidelines designed to minimise the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the NHS. (Side note: If this is you, please change your behaviour and follow the guidelines because you are harming other people). However, I have also been heartened by people offering to help and support others. NHS and retail staff risking their health to do their jobs, often facing abuse from the people they are helping. People stepping up to help their communities, forming emergency groups to help those in need. Friends reassuring each other through social media. Professionals providing online resources and live-streaming everything from exercise sessions to church services.

Finding positives is hard enough in itself, so I won’t tell you to focus on the positives (although, obviously, do focus on them if you can!), but please look for some positive things in each day. I’m making an effort to practice gratitude, because I’m lucky to have a home to self-isolate in and to have the NHS. Practicing gratitude in hard times can be difficult, especially when it’s difficult to accept our current circumstances, but it can help. My personal positives include: having a sunny bedroom (thanks to my brother moving out last year!), my dog (and my mum’s dog and cat), the masses of books I have available to read, my treadmill (which I bought 9 years ago because I was incredibly unfit and too scared to leave the house alone), chatting to friends via social media, gorgeous scented candles given to me by good friends, studying Psychology with the Open University and having my brother and his girlfriend drop off a few groceries yesterday, since my parents and I are self-isolating after getting coughs last Tuesday (we’re all fine and recovering). 

Keep moving

I attended a workshop a few weeks ago which highlighted movement as an antidote to anxiety and depression. As someone who manages my mental health through exercise, among other strategies, this is a familiar concept but something clicked when the workshop leader talked about figurative forms of movement alongside physical activities. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that many of the most effective ways of managing my mental health involve movement. Since exercise is an obvious option, I will focus on the more metaphorical types of movement.

Goal-setting is the most obvious example –– I tend to cope better when I am working towards a goal and making tangible progress. It helps me feel as though I’m moving in the right direction, even if I get frustrated about how slow my progress seems. Having goals is also important to me because during my worst episodes of depression, I don’t have any goals. I lose all desire and motivation. Compared to those times, it’s better to have some goals; often they are goals which seem ridiculously small and/or impossible, but they are goals. If self-isolation and/or social distancing is causing you to feel stuck, think about goals you could put in place and work towards right now, in your own home. These might be ambitious, but smaller goals are often most effective at navigating your way through a tough time. I have used such goals many times: cooking an actual meal instead of grabbing crisps, taking a shower, simply listening to music for 10 minutes, texting a friend, etc. Your goals need to fit your current situation to be helpful.

Connected to goal-setting is planning for the future. When you are able to plan, even if these plans are nebulous and unspecific, you create the sense of a future –– and there will be a future, no matter how improbable that feels, because that’s the nature of time. This too shall pass. Everything will pass. My plans range from huge, scary, life-changing possibilities to tiny, mundane ideas about what I would like to do. For example, I may plan to read a particular book when I finish my current reading material. Life feels extremely chaotic at present, so planning things to do in the immediate future can help create some structure. For instance, I plan to replace my gym classes with strength workouts at home. Planning events and activities for after the pandemic is over can give you a sense of perspective by acknowledging that this too will pass and when it does, perhaps you would like to live your life differently or achieve goals which you have put off.

Decluttering is something I have mentioned a lot in blog posts and for good reason: it creates a sense of movement by transforming your space and can sometimes change the way you live. I started making a conscious effort to declutter several years ago. Until that point, I had been a ‘more is more’ kind of person and since compulsive overspending was a massive issue at that point in my life, my home was crammed with lots of stuff. Eventually, I reached the point where I felt trapped by my stuff –– I could hardly move around my bedroom and I felt sick when I thought about how much it had cost. I started by getting rid of things I no longer used, including the desk at which I had studied throughout my Film Studies degree but never used for writing and box files of old magazines I rarely unboxed. Decluttering can be confronting, especially after several cycles, but it has left me with more physical space and headspace. I’m probably never going to be a minimalist, but most of my possessions are now things I use and/or like and I’m more mindful in my spending. It’s hard to describe, but decluttering helps me feel more free. 

Reassess your priorities

Extreme situations tend to make us reevaluate our lives, whether it’s a personal crisis, bereavement or a pandemic. A lesson I have learnt over and over again, especially in the past few years, is that health must be my top priority. Our health (physical and mental, which are inextricably combined anyway) affects everything else in our lives. After spending a week feeling crap because of pandemic anxieties and having a virus myself (no idea if it is COVID-19, but I had a new cough so I’m following the NHS/government guidelines), I’m trying to establish/reestablish some healthy habits –– especially eating more healthily and getting back into an exercise routine. I have also been trying to get into the habit of meditating for 12 minutes a day –– I started a few weeks ago and it seemed to help, but last week’s practice was sporadic –– and I’m aiming to do more journalling, to help my mental health. If this pandemic teaches us anything as a society, please let it be to take more responsibility for our health, individually and collectively, and support each other.

Being worried about family and friends has demonstrated that I’m not an antisocial misanthrope, despite sometimes feeling like one. I care about people. I suppose this is something I already knew, but it reaffirms the priority and when this is over, I would like to do more with my friends. I have often shied away from socialising because my only dependable income is £95 a week in benefits, thanks to my ability to work being impaired by mental illness, and I owe my parents a lot of money. However, now I’m thinking I should have taken more of those opportunities to go out and socialise. 

I have also been reminded of how important my Psychology degree is to me, because learning that my exam has been cancelled and not having been informed (yet) about the alternative assessment being put in place has caused a lot of stress. The exam is one of the requirements for the degree being BPS (British Psychological Society) accredited and while it has been pointed out that all universities are in the same position, nobody has actually stated that the BPS accreditation will not be affected. I don’t want to say too much, but I’m considering a career path which involves needing a BPS accredited degree to move on to the next step, so it’s hard not to catastrophise and imagine all my plans going down the drain. I know that’s unlikely to happen and there will be a way to figure out a solution, but anxiety isn’t logical. 

Similarly, despite having issues with my writing mojo over the past year, writing (particularly fiction) is still one of my priorities. Interwoven with this is my love of reading, which is providing some distraction and a little inspiration. If I were to die soon, I would regret not having completed a novel I’m truly proud of, regardless of whether it’s published. Other regrets which I hope to guide me in future include wasting too much time on people who take far more than they give back, not standing up for myself more, spending money on things which gave me relatively little pleasure and not travelling more. Think about what you are missing right now and what you are most worried about –– are these concerns reflected in the way you usually live your life?

Be kind

Kindness is vital during difficult times and we need to prioritise being kind to both ourselves and others. Do what you can –– don’t beat yourself up because so-and-so on social media is coping so well and you’re a hot mess. We all have different experiences and resources, so we cope in different ways. Anxiety tends to fluctuate, so most of us have both wobbly moments and moments when we excel at coping and can support and empower others. Try not to compare yourself to others (I’m a massive hypocrite on this point!), because it’s not a competition.

Help others if you can, but don’t feel bad if you are struggling to keep it together and it takes all your effort to keep going through the day. As wonderful as it is to see people doing grand things to support others, sometimes a small gesture can make a big difference. Text a friend to remind them they are awesome. Spend a few minutes dancing to your favourite happy song. Share a helpful website link on social media. Try to be a positive force in the world, but remember that when you are struggling there’s no shame in giving yourself a break.

The bottom line: if you can do nothing else, the essential thing you need to do to be kind to everyone, including yourself and your family, is to adhere to the current government guidelines on self-isolation and social distancing. Even if you do nothing more, that’s enough.

Cycles of Resurfacing

When I created this blog and called it Resurfacing and Rewriting, I thought the name would represent a clear journey: my mental health was improving and I was learning to cope with being well enough to work towards some of my goals, but not well enough to function ‘normally’. I never expected this journey to be linear and was certainly prepared for setbacks, but I didn’t realise that managing my mental health and attempting to chase my dreams would take the form of numerous cycles. These cycles have varied in duration, how difficult they are to endure and their impact on my life. 

I’m currently resurfacing after a particularly difficult cycle, which was caused by having very painful gallstones for 15 months. Living in pain takes its toll on your mental health, regardless of whether you have a pre-existing mental health condition. I’m lucky that my pain was temporary, since I had my gallbladder removed just over a month ago, but I struggled to explain the pervasive and unrelenting nature of my pain to other people. I would say ‘I’m in constant pain’ and some people would interpret this as meaning I had frequent episodes of pain, whereas my reality was significant baseline pain 24/7 and frequent episodes of worse pain. I could sometimes distract myself from the pain, but it was always present. 

Living with pain is depressing in its truest sense: I lost hope that my situation would improve and lost motivation to try. My feelings of helplessness and suicidal thoughts increased. I socialised less than usual (which is very little), because I found it difficult to focus on other people or having fun when I had my arms clamped around my stomach, trying to ease the pain a little. The only things which seemed to ease my pain were heat pads and lavender oil, which are difficult to use when outside your own home. My anxiety increased, because I had constant nausea and during my worst episodes I would collapse with pain and/or vomit so I was terrified of this happening when I was in public, especially if my mum wasn’t around to help and explain what was happening. I pushed on with my basic exercise routine and Open University studies simply because I knew failure to do so would make my mental health significantly worse.

After my surgery, the nausea disappeared straightaway and within a few weeks, my pain levels were lower than the baseline pain I had experienced with gallstones. I haven’t experienced any post-op pain which was equivalent to my worst episodes. The general anaesthetic didn’t affect me as badly as it did when I had eye surgery––rather than feeling as if I had the flu, this time I just felt tired and found it difficult to concentrate on anything for very long. These problems have eased over the past two weeks, so I feel alert and focused enough to get back to studying and writing. In fact, I feel pretty good and sometimes forget my core muscles are still a little sore… until I try to lift something too heavy or twist/reach in a strange way!

In many ways, 2019 feels like a write-off year. I failed to make progress in many of my goals and when I did achieve something, such as passing my Psychology modules, I felt I wasn’t making the most of the opportunity. My mental health declined after two years of improvement (on balance). Each step forward I took seemed to come at a great cost and was quickly reversed. I ended the year feeling battered and beaten, although knowing I would be starting 2020 without a gallbladder was a great source of hope.

So 2020 is about resurfacing and getting back to my priorities. 

My goals for this year are mostly the same as last year, since I didn’t achieve them: increase my fitness and strength, reach my goal weight (made more challenging by gaining 25lbs from my lowest recent weight), save more money and complete a novel draft I actually like. These goals are specific and measurable, but I won’t bore you with the details! However, I also have two more nebulous goals… Firstly, I want to enjoy writing again and be guided by what I love to read and write, rather than what I think I should write or what seems more marketable. I have lost my writing mojo and although I completed some short stories last year, writing often felt like a chore and I lost confidence in most before submitting them anywhere. Secondly, I want to have more fun and surprise myself. I have no idea what form this will take, so I’m trying to keep an open mind and find out. 

Since I’m recovering from surgery and still struggling with my mental health, I have decided to follow a few strategies when working towards my goals.

1. Reminding myself of my whys.

My core values are creativity, curiosity and compassion, so I try to use them as a compass. I want to write in order to connect with other people and promote empathy towards other people, especially those who experience mental health problems. I want my writing to be entertaining, informative and thought-provoking. I also hope it inspires other people to chase their dreams, especially if they feel held back by mental illness. My Psychology degree feeds my curiosity, but I would also like to use it to help other people––although I’m not yet sure how I will do this––and I hope it informs my blogging.

2. Easing in.

My instinct whenever I feel well enough to work towards my goals is to jump in and try to make up for lost time. This doesn’t work. Partly because it takes its toll on my energy and mental health, so I get ill and have to stop. I’m trying to get better at pacing myself this year, so I’m trying to ease back into working towards my goals where possible (university deadlines aren’t very flexible!) and build up momentum as I get stronger. 

3. Seeking joy and inspiration.

This means appreciating the ‘small things’ in my everyday life and reading about people who inspire or motivate me to keep going. I’m trying to focus on the process of working towards my goals, rather than just the results, so I want to place more emphasis on enjoying activities for their own sake. 

I hope 2020 will be a year of recovery and growth. While I have always valued health, especially since my worst years of depression and anxiety, my experience of gallstones has highlighted its importance even more––which is why losing weight and living a healthier lifestyle continues to be my top priority, alongside improving my mental health. I’m sure the ‘rewriting’ stage will come at some point, helping me reframe my experiences and view 2019 in a more positive light, but for now I’m resurfacing and coming back to my life.

Accepting Struggles

One of the hardest aspects of long term mental health problems is spending a significant proportion of your life struggling with stuff which comes easily when you are at your best. Some things I may never find easy: crowds, dealing with inconsiderate people and talking to strangers will probably remain nerve-shattering experiences for the rest of my life. I’m not talking about pushing at the boundaries of my anxiety––I’m talking about mundane tasks which aren’t a challenge on days when my mental health is adequate, but become next to impossible when my symptoms increase.

Studying is the most obvious example which comes to mind. Usually, I can tackle reading and note-taking with no issues. Even on days when leaving the house seems insurmountable, I can do a little studying and feel as if I have done something worthwhile. However, common symptoms of depression (which I experience) include loss of concentration, lethargy and lack of motivation. There are some days when I take out my textbook and struggle to take in any information.

Last week, I spent four hours trying to write notes on a chapter of my psychology textbook. I had already covered the material, highlighting key points and making margin notes, yet I struggled to get anything down. After producing a few measly pages of notes (and my style of note-taking is loosely based on mind mapping, so there aren’t many words to each page), I gave up.

Years of negative thinking patterns have programmed my response to giving up: I beat myself up for being useless, lazy, worthless, stupid, incapable of basic functioning… you name it! What was the effect of this negative self-talk? Did I become more productive and sail through my to-do list? Er, no. I spent a few days feeling even worse than usual––which, considering I have chronic depression, is pretty bad.

My mood has shifted this week and there has been a positive effect on my productivity. With relatively little effort (compared to last week), I have completed most of the tasks on my high-priority to-do list. To put this in perspective, my average for the past couple of months has been completing approximately one third of my highest priorities each week and accomplishing little else. I’m delighted to be having a good week and try to ignore the voice in my head which tells me I don’t deserve to feel productive or that I need to get ahead now because, before long, something is bound to go wrong and mess things up. However, it’s hard to accept that there can be such a difference in the space of a single week.

I can’t control my symptoms on any given day. I repeat this often, because it’s a concept which a lot of people find difficult to understand. “You were fine the other week” they say, when I’m having a panic attack in the supermarket, or “You can write thousands of words some days, so why not every day?” But despite understanding the concept, I myself struggle to accept the reality.

Planning to have a “good day” when a deadline is looming or I have something special organised doesn’t work. I tell myself it’s important to finish this task ASAP because it will make me less stressed in the long run, but piling on the pressure just makes things worse. If I could plan all my bad days, it would be very convenient––I could choose to have them all during the summer, when I’m not studying, or dot them throughout the year and be prepared each week. Unfortunately, mental illness––and life––doesn’t work that way.

I’m learning (and relearning) to accept my bad days, because trying to fight them makes everything worse. Instead, the best strategy is to let go of my plans for the day and give myself what I need, whether that’s a run to boost my mood, resting to improve my wellbeing or reading to seek inspiration. Last week, once I had wasted a few days feeling terrible, I stepped up the self-care by feeding myself more nutritious meals and countering the negative thoughts using CBT techniques. I still didn’t feel amazing, but it was better than nothing.

I also realised my initial reaction to my improved mood and productivity this week wasn’t helpful: feeling angry and frustrated about feeling so awful last week was pointless. Instead, I could frame this week as a reminder that good days will always come again. They might take their sweet time in coming––sometimes months––and be too few when they do arrive, but they will come.

I hope these intense, prolonged struggles won’t be part of my life forever, but if they never go away then I need to accept them. Fighting them doesn’t work––it’s like trying to wrestle water. Moreover, if I do spend the rest of my life shackled by my mental health problems, I need to dredge my struggles and find something positive amongst the dross. I guess that’s what I attempt to do with this blog––thanks for reading!

Mustering Enthusiasm

A few weeks ago, I reached the point where I was sick of feeling lethargic and unmotivated. I felt I was achieving nothing and realised I was missing the one thing which keeps me going, even when I’m struggling with my mental health: enthusiasm.

Parachuting

When I’m at my best, I am full of enthusiasm. It drives other attributes which define who I am at my best, including creativity, determination and curiosity. Unfortunately, a lot of those attributes seem to have slipped away this year.

Struggling

I have debated over whether to blog about this, because I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me or see it as a plea for attention. One of the risks of speaking up about your mental health problems, especially if you have borderline personality disorder, is getting stuck in a Catch 22 situation: you need to be honest and open about your experiences in order to help people understand, yet being open and honest exposes you to accusations of attention seeking and manipulation.

Part of me feels it’s “wrong” to discuss the negative aspects of my illnesses because I’m coping better than many other people. I’m coping better than I did in the past. However, “coping better” still involves numerous days of feeling suicidal. My self-harming and panic attacks have both increased this year. Often, it doesn’t feel like I’m coping at all.

There are a few obvious reasons for this decline in my mental health. I’m dealing with chronic pain from gallstones and sometimes it feels as if this alone has stolen huge chunks of my life. It stops me from fully enjoying fun activities and spending time with friends. I’m also reluctant to book tickets for events I would like to attend, because if my gallstones are playing up it will be a nightmare or if I have a bad episode, I would have to cancel anyway and lose money. In addition, gallstones symptoms interrupt my exercise routine, which is my main mental health management strategy. Missing a couple of workouts might not sound like a big deal to most people, but it’s akin to skipping antidepressants several days in a row – not advisable and potentially dangerous. My mental health gets worse when I’m less active, which means it’s harder to either get back to exercising or use other healthy coping strategies.

The surge in some of my symptoms is partly due to challenging myself in ways to which I’m not accustomed (understatement!). I completed an 8 month temporary job for a local youth mental health organisation which involved situations I find very difficult due to anxiety. While I’m proud to have stuck at it, there were many times when I thought they had made a mistake in hiring me and I felt I wasn’t good enough. I had hoped it would be a confidence-building challenge which could encourage me to seek more opportunities, but it led to a lot of self-doubt instead.

Finally, my Open University degree is going well, but while I’m pleased with my module results for the 2018/19 academic year, I wish I had been less stressed and more able to enjoy the process. Which is why, as my next modules are about to start, I want to recapture my enthusiasm.

Searching for motivation

Once I identified enthusiasm as something which would be beneficial, I turned to Google and typed “How to be more enthusiastic.” The search resulted in a lot of websites which churned out the same advice (this one is good but typical). As with a lot of wellbeing and self-improvement advice, some of it was very obvious but difficult to actually implement, especially if you have mental health problems. I know it’s important to sleep and eat well, for example, but depression and anxiety messes with both my sleeping and eating patterns.

However, one of the obvious options is exercise and I realised the importance of increasing my physical activity before my mood plummets further and makes it all but impossible. Exercise also helps me sleep better. Goal 1 of Project Enthusiasm was born: move more.

Moving more is easy in theory, but harder in practice. I was already sticking to my gym classes and walking the dogs at least 2 miles a day, but this isn’t enough to improve my mental health beyond the basic “get out of bed but zone out in from of the TV most of the day” level. To get the full benefits of exercise, I need to run at least 2/3 times a week. Running works for me in a way which other types of exercise simply don’t – I can slip into a kind of mindful meditation once I get into the rhythm of a run and focus on nothing but my current experience. Being free from the constant negative self-talk is a relief in itself, but then the serotonin increases after 15 minutes or so and I notice a shift in my mood.

So I have gotten back to running over the past couple of weeks and it’s working. No miracles have been wrought, but I’m a little less depressed and a little more motivated. Some of the runs have been very hard, but I force myself to start and each time I want to stop, I tell myself to try and run for 1 more minute. Often, this is every minute of the run. I have run slower than planned some sessions, but I have hit my mileage targets and these small achievements give me some confidence.

Note: I would never run through pain. When I tell myself to push through, it’s pushing through discomfort and while some of this discomfort is physical, it’s mostly mental. It’s a cliché to say people rarely regret a run (or different workout), but it’s true for me: I gain a sense of achievement from sticking to my plan and as someone who spent 20 years not being able to run far, I get a kick out of knowing I can keep going for a certain distance.

Reconnecting

The other strategy for mustering enthusiasm which resonated with me is to explore whatever you find interesting. To cultivate a sense of curiosity. For me, studying psychology and writing fiction are important, yet I have been feeling disconnected from both of them. Finishing last year’s psychology modules was so stressful that I lost touch with my love of learning the subject; completing the assignments was a bigger priority than exploring topics. Writing got pushed aside as my health problems ate up bigger chunks of my time, although perhaps I’m also experiencing a lingering disappointment or grief over my last novel attempt not working out as I had hoped.

Reading is the most accessible inroad (for me) to reconnecting with both fiction and psychology, so I made it more of a priority. I cut down on watching TV and forced myself to pick up a book, despite my mental health affecting my concentration. As with exercising, I felt a sense of “use it or lose it” because while I love reading and learning, I was unable to read when my mental illness was at its worst. I feel guilty for saying this, since I’m a writer, but when you’re depressed and anxious, it’s far easier to switch on the TV or play games than to read – even while you are able to do so. However, once I started reading more (in both frequency of reading sessions and duration), it became easier to concentrate.

I chose to focus on reading because I didn’t want to pressure myself to write a certain number of words, but I’m easing back into writing mote. Again, nothing miraculous has occurred and I haven’t completed a novel in two weeks, but I’m a little more productive. Immersing myself in stories has brought some inspiration.

Similarly, getting a head start on my OU module materials has reminded me of why I decided to do a Psychology BSc. The subject is fascinating and I want to apply my knowledge to my own life, as well as (hopefully) using it to help others in the future. My career plans are still fuzzy, but I would like to improve people’s understanding of mental health and empower people who have mental health problems to achieve their own goals. I guess I’m reconnecting with my sense of purpose.

Progress

I’m two and a half weeks into Project Enthusiasm and I say this tentatively, but…there have been definite improvements. While I will probably never be the type of person who bounces out of bed excited to see what the day brings, I’m trying to act in more enthusiastic ways. For the most part, this means forcing myself to start a run or a book chapter – once I get going, momentum (or stubbornness!) usually gets me through. My mood isn’t fantastic, but I feel less wretched and excited to get stuck into the new academic year. I even found the motivation to blog!

I’m also trying to emphasise the positive aspects of my life, because it hasn’t been all doom and gloom this year. The best change is the fact that I’m typing this while sitting on my new bed, in my new, bigger bedroom – one of many advantages caused by my brother moving out! I feel very lucky to be studying psychology and despite the ridiculous bloating (thanks to my gallstones), I’m maintaining a weight which is the closest I’ve been to a healthy BMI for many years. Sure, I wish things were better, but at least I feel like I’m heading in the right direction.

The Work of Wellness

I recently read a book called How to Come Alive Again by Beth McColl, which has led to me thinking a lot about a subject which doesn’t get discussed often enough: the work involved in managing chronic mental illness. One of the book’s strengths is its acknowledgement that readers will have varying levels of functionality and these may fluctuate a lot, even over short periods of time, yet everyone has to work hard to try and maintain or improve their mental health. Some days, this means challenging ourselves and flying through a list of tasks. Other days, it means forcing ourselves to do basic tasks like drinking some water or getting out of bed. It’s all work.

A lot of people take this work for granted. If you haven’t spent years struggling with your mental health, it may be difficult to believe that simple activities are hard work for some of us. You may not understand how taking a shower can sometimes seem like a gargantuan challenge. You might wonder why people who have mental illnesses can’t just “pull themselves together” and carry on like a “normal” person (a viewpoint I have, unfortunately, encountered many times). But doing these things can be hard work. Mental health problems can drain us of energy, motivation, self-belief and a thousand other things which would enable us to cope better. Things which many people don’t need to consider when tackling mundane tasks.

Working on yourself

Managing one’s mental health also involves extra work, such as addressing complex issues and engaging in activities which have a positive neurological and/or psychological effect. Last week, some counsellors of my acquaintance were talking about their work and mentioned that many clients expect counsellors to fix their lives for them. Instead of embarking on counselling to work on their issues, they seek a quick fix. As one of the counsellors said, “I can’t fix their lives for them. I’m not magic.”

I was fascinated by this conversation, because I have received counselling at different points in my life and had never approached it as a quick fix. In fact, the NHS counselling I have received in the past is often criticised for being too brief to be effective in the long term: six sessions, the first of which is an introduction rather than a proper session. I went through two or three rounds of this with different counsellors and it was a sticking-plaster solution which helped me feel slightly better for a few weeks, only to deteriorate when I encountered more challenges. I had been given neither the support nor the skills to negotiate life as someone who has mental health problems. This started to change when I was given a year of drama therapy, which enabled me to work through a lot of personal issues.

I have also received longer-term counselling (around nine or ten months) from a local charity in more recent years and I was grateful to be given the opportunity to learn coping skills, including how to be more supportive of myself. The counselling itself was hard work, but putting what I have learnt into practice is an ongoing slog. I need to learn to be more accountable to myself now I don’t have anyone to check I’ve done my “homework” each week. Learning not to judge and criticise myself is also a constant challenge—I worry I’m not pushing myself enough and accuse myself of being lazy, even when I know I’m doing my best.

Tailoring your work to fit you

The work I do to manage my mental health is very personal—not so much private, but adapted to my own needs and preferences—and probably looks different to what many other people do. It has been a long process of trial and error which is still ongoing. I have also changed my approach at different points in my life, depending on what is most effective at any specific time.

The biggest difference in my approach over the past eight years is the prominence of exercise in managing my mental health. I started walking on a treadmill, because I was too scared to walk outside alone. My intention was to get a little fitter, because I had been very inactive for a couple of years and my lack of fitness was beginning to scare me. I had no idea it would lead to the decision to replace medication with exercise and if I had started getting fit with that intention, I probably would have been disappointed because it took around four years to reach the point where I could consider reducing my antidepressants.

Medication is another thing people consider a “quick fix” yet, like counsellors, antidepressants are not magic. They rarely work instantly—it can take several weeks to see an improvement, which is normal—and it may take some experimentation to find a variety and dosage which works for you. However, even when I found antidepressants which helped me, I didn’t experience the complete turnaround in mood expected by some people: they simply took the edge off my depression, which meant I could do more basic self-care tasks and work on improving my mental health.

All of these things seem so ordered when I write about them: counselling, medication, exercise and other coping strategies all organised into discrete boxes, all tracking a linear progression from “worse” to “better”. The reality is very different. My symptoms fluctuate a lot and the treatments I have used have been both effective and ineffective at different times.

I emphasise this point because reading about other people’s mental health can create false impressions, especially since many of us can’t write about our experiences during the worst times so write with the benefit of hindsight. These paltry lines of writing represent over fifteen years of struggle following my diagnosis of anxiety and depression; especially during the eight years before I was diagnosed with BPD (borderline personality disorder) and could finally make sense of the symptoms which didn’t fit with anxiety and depression. I don’t think I could ever fully convey my experience and while I can make sense of chunks in retrospect, other aspects I will never understand.

It might be tempting to take some things out of context and to make assumptions about the decisions I have made about managing my mental health. For example, many people assume I disagree with anyone using medication because I have stopped using it myself, whereas I actually credit antidepressants with keeping me alive. Without medication, I would not have been able to access therapy and counselling. I would not have started exercising. I would not have been able to do a large proportion of the work I need to do on a regular basis in order to maintain and (hopefully) improve my mental health.

So, what does this work involve?

My current mental health management plan prioritises exercise: strength-based gym classes and dog walking constitute its core, but I add running and yoga when I feel able. Exercise has a strong impact on my hormones and neurochemicals, which is why I have found it effective as a direct replacement for antidepressants (though not without its drawbacks). I also find it very powerful psychologically, as feeling strong and fit helps me feel more prepared for life’s challenges and I gain a sense of achievement from every workout.  Focusing on strength and fitness means I approach exercise with a healthy attitude—it’s not merely a way to control my weight through burning calories and I know that over-exercising would risk injury without providing extra benefits for my mental health. My exercise plan also gives my life structure, but without forcing me into a strict routine which I would be unable to follow when my symptoms fluctuate.

Regular exercising makes it easier to practice self-care, as it means I have to shower often. Basic hygiene may seem simple and non-negotiable if you have never had depression, but showering less often is one of the key signs I’m relapsing. Ditto with changing bedsheets and wearing clean clothes. This might manifest in subtle ways—leaving it a few days between showers but making the effort when you need to go out or be around people—and may never progress beyond this point, but it can get worse. Sometimes it can feel pointless to make the effort to shower, because your illness prevents you from leaving the house. I have been in this position and yes, I might have felt better if I had showered more often, but I was in a lot of emotional pain and had no energy. Nowadays, self-care tasks piggyback on my exercise routine: I shower more, so I change my sheets more and wear clean clothes more often. It also helps me sleep better, which further improves my mental health.

A lot of the work I do to get/stay well comes under the umbrella of “stress/anxiety management”, which is my way of describing a variety of techniques I use to varying degrees. Goal-setting and planning are key strategies for me, because they help me to focus and stay vaguely motivated. I use breathing exercises when I feel particularly anxious, including 7-11 breathing (inhale as you count to 7, exhale for 11) and box breathing (in for a count of 4, hold for 4, exhale for 4, pause for 4 and repeat as needed). Venting my current stresses on paper also helps me feel better, especially if I can identify action points which could reduce or solve the problem, and I sometimes use a few CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) techniques I have learnt over the years.

None of this work is easy, especially when my symptoms worsen, but there are some areas with which I struggle a lot. Nutrition is difficult because I’m prone to emotional eating and often grab food which is convenient rather than healthy. My diet is generally healthier than at any other point in my life, but I sometimes slip into unhealthy habits—a situation which is not helped by my gallstones symptoms. Perhaps I will be able to prioritise nutrition in future and do stuff like meal prep and batch cooking every week, rather than intermittently, but it’s not something I’m rocking at present and that’s okay—I try to do what I can and I may fall short of my goals, but I’m doing my best.

Considering the macros along with the micros

Most of the work I have detailed is done at the “micro” level: small tasks performed on a daily or weekly basis. This type of work is what fills most of my days. When things are going well, it helps me feel in control and gives me the ability to enjoy my life. Doing the “micro” work also puts me in a better position to handle the “macro” work.

The “macro” work is the big picture: what I want out of life, my long-term goals and mental health management from a higher perspective. Again, this work is very personal. My priorities are my writing career, inspiring other people with mental health issues to chase their dreams, owning my own home (which seems impossible) and having fun along the way. Your priorities may look very different. My current priorities are different to the ones I have had in the past and will have in the future—they are subject to change, but they emerged from my values and I use them to guide me.

Keeping sight of the “macro” work can be extremely difficult when you have mental health problems. When you are struggling to get through each day, you can’t think about long-term goals. Yet, there’s a paradox: keeping my long-term goals in sight reminds me why it’s worth struggling through the days, why it’s important to keep working on self-care and the other “micro” work which helps me feel better. It gives my everyday life a sense of purpose.

I have learnt to revisit my “macro” work on a regular basis (at least once a month) for this reason. It makes my life meaningful and it makes the small steps I take each day meaningful. Do I get frustrated when I seem no closer to achieving my long-term goals and pushing through my daily wellness work feels like a massive challenge? Of course! I’m human. I wish I didn’t have to deal with mental illness every single day of my life, but it’s the material I’ve been given and I have to mould it as best I can. Considering the “macro” work also reminds me to check for progress, no matter how small, which I might overlook. For example, submitting a short story or making an extra debt repayment. My progress may be slow and excruciating, but it’s still progress.

You control your own work

Nobody can tell you what to prioritise in order to manage your mental health—trial and error is the only way to find out what works for you. It’s annoying when we would all prefer a quick fix, but it’s the nature of mental illness. Just in case you need me to point out the obvious, this also means you can’t dictate what other people should be doing to improve their mental health. You don’t know their struggles. It might be easy to judge from afar and when we find something which works for us it’s tempting to evangelise, but we don’t know what will help other people. You don’t get to decide what treatments and coping strategies someone else tries—they do.

You get to decide what you try and how to determine whether it’s effective. For instance, you may find something which helps you, but is too difficult to implement or access on a regular basis. You need to consider the costs and benefits of different types of work. Some of my current strategies would not have worked for me at other points in my life. For example, I tried to exercise at many different times, but struggled to create a routine—I could only establish some structure when I was well enough to attend gym classes. I still get anxious when I go to gym classes, but the benefits are worth this cost and if that changes, I would have to reconsider my situation. Likewise, the CBT techniques I find helpful nowadays were introduced to me in my NHS counselling sessions and didn’t help at the time. It’s important to keep trying new—and old—things to find out what works for you and your lifestyle right now.

I am not magic. I have to put a lot of work into managing my mental health and trying to get well. Sometimes I make progress, but other times I seem to regress and wonder why I bother making the effort. However, I’m learning that when I keep trying to do the work of wellness, moments of magic come into my life. Half an hour of feeling enthusiastic and joyous, rather than anxious, when I’m chatting with a friend. A moment of gratitude when a butterfly crosses my path. Three solid hours of working on a project which could turn into something. These fleeting moments might seem insignificant, but there have been times when I experienced nothing good or positive for weeks on end. Nowadays, if I remember to look, most days contain a little magic.

Shifting

The clocks going forward is always welcome to me, because the improvement in my mood is almost immediate. Everything shifts. It doesn’t mean I don’t have bad days and my depression doesn’t get cured miraculously, but I’m a little less depressed and it’s a little easier to cope. I feel less overwhelmed.

The brighter evenings make it easier to use some coping strategies which I find helpful, including spending more time outside and exercising outside. I can organise my day so that I can make time to walk or run in the evening. The change to BST is a powerful reminder that spring is here and summer is coming: things will change and get better. When my days are (generally) brighter and warmer, focusing on the positive aspects of my life becomes more natural to me.

Summer will also bring the end of my second year studying for a Psychology BSc part time with the Open University. I have three assignments left to complete for my two modules. It has been a difficult academic year, because the first half coincided with my gallstones making themselves known. Before I got diagnosed, I found it incredibly hard to cope. Until the past month, I was constantly trying to catch up on the work I had neglected when I was ill, falling behind on one module as I struggled to meet an assignment deadline for the other. I wish I had managed to enjoy studying more, as I find the subject fascinating and a lot of the material resonated with me.

Thankfully, my gallstones are a lot quieter at the moment, although I dread another bad attack. I still have the baseline pain and nausea, but I have found ways to cope. A friend recommended rubbing lavender oil on my stomach, because it’s anti-spasmodic, and that has been more effective than anything else I have tried (thanks, Su!). I also rely heavily on heat pads and find that intermittent fasting (eating during an 8 hour window) helps a lot. I still get moderate attacks, but not severe ones like I was getting from October to January, which left me writhing on the floor in agony. I’m hoping this will continue until June, because my end-of-module assignments are due at the end of May…

I’m also coping better because I’m exercising more, although there is some circularity in that it’s easier for me to exercise more when I feel better! I have been running again, which is brilliant for both my mental health and the gallstones. Although it’s difficult to ignore the gallstones pain, especially as it likes to affect my back and the tops of my hips (the iliotibial band), the endorphins kick in after 10-15 minutes and are an effective painkiller. I get a psychological boost from exercising, as well, because it helps me feel fit and strong. Knowing I’m getting stronger physically helps me feel as if I’m getting stronger mentally.

It finally feels like I’m moving forward again, after a hard winter. I’m making progress towards my goals, even if it’s slower than I would like, and things are beginning to change.

Rushing and Waiting

Progress in anything is often slow and nonlinear, but these qualities are exacerbated when you have mental health problems. In particular, anxiety and depression can create conflicting symptoms: it feels like I’m progressing too slowly and have the urge to rush into everything, yet it’s difficult to find the energy and feel motivated, plus many activities are too challenging. It feels like being torn in different directions.

Dog waiting

I have been feeling this way a lot over the past few months. So much of my time has been lost to mental illness that I feel frustrated when it steals more time from me. I’m glad and grateful that nowadays these increments of time can be (usually) measured in hours, days and weeks — in the past, they were most commonly measured in months and years — but it’s still stolen time. Time I can never get back.

My frustration might be due to my experience of losing so much time during my teens and twenties, when most of my peers were achieving amazing things, changing their lives and having fun. I may never reach the milestones of adulthood which the majority of people consider “normal”, like living independently and supporting myself without relying on state benefits, so it feels like everyone has overtaken me. I feel a deep need to prove myself, to demonstrate that my goals are worthwhile and I can make a valuable contribution to the world.

I constantly worry I am failing at life. I tend to dismiss my achievements, because it feels ridiculous to be proud of them when I struggle with tasks that most people find easy. I pressure myself to reach high standards because I hope it can atone for my failures, which include relying on my parents and finding driving a huge challenge nearly 9 years after I passed my test. If I could choose to exchange my achievements for being able to do everyday tasks, like shopping on my own and holding down a full time job, I think I would. Other people, I suspect, would find me more acceptable.

 

Waiting times.

Lately, I have been in a reflective mood. I think it’s because I had to wait several weeks for my results from my first Psychology module. In the event, I got an overall score of 95 and surpassed my expectations, but I was anxious about failing because it would effectively terminate my pursuit of the degree. I managed to almost convince myself I had messed up my final assignment so much that I had failed the module. As frustrating as it was to waste yet more time worrying for no reason, my anxiety  sometimes gives me insights: studying Psychology is very important to me.

While it should be obvious that I’m not choosing to accumulate more student loan debt for no reason, I think part of me worried about my reasons for pursuing a Psychology BSc. I have no career path mapped out. No way of knowing how my mental health will affect my life when I complete the qualification. However, I do feel a strong desire to improve my understanding of psychology and mental health so that I can help others. Perhaps I will do this through my writing; perhaps it will be via research or something else. I don’t know the route I will take, but I have clarified my first steps and am heading in the right direction.

The experience has highlighted a few truths:

1. There will always be waiting periods in my life, whether it’s waiting to hear about results or taking action in the face of excruciatingly slow progress

2. My mental health issues might mean I have more waiting periods than the average person

3. The only way to deal with waiting periods is to accept them

 

Acceptance is bloody hard.

Acceptance. It’s a simple concept, but difficult to practice. My instinct is to get upset: “why should I accept chronic mental illness when other people don’t experience it at all or for shorter periods?” And no, reminding myself that other people experience more severe mental illness for longer periods doesn’t help. Yet acceptance is the only way forward, because fighting against mental health problems doesn’t work — you have to take a collaborative approach, working within your constraints while pushing for progress.

Unfortunately, accepting my mental health issues can be difficult for other people. Many friends have dropped away because they couldn’t understand my symptoms, or why my symptoms differ from their own experiences of mental health problems. I know I’m better off without these “friends” but it’s still painful. Society in general doesn’t seem to accept mental illness. Even when people express understanding for “high functioning” people who have mental health issues, they are quick to judge those of us whose ability to work is affected. Stigma still prevails: people assume you are lazy if you need to rely on benefits, many express sympathy while acting in unsympathetic ways and judge you based on how you appear on your good days, without considering how they might be outweighed by bad days.

It’s difficult to accept your own situation when other people send negative messages. Even common assumptions can be hurtful for those of us who don’t fit the “norm” and these assumptions seem to increase as I get older. People assume a woman in her mid 30s should have her own home, be in a serious relationship, work full time, want or have children, socialise at least a few times a week, etc. I don’t fit the pattern and probably never will.

Yet everything boils down to the same old truth: improving my situation requires acceptance.

 

Learning to be patient.

I know comparing myself to others is ridiculous. Everyone’s situation, experiences and challenges are unique to themselves. All I can do is work on my own goals, try to improve my mental health and hope it all works out in the end. Oh, and I should probably try to enjoy my life along the way!

Maybe that’s the key to self-care, achieving goals, managing mental health and life in general: to aim for progress, not perfection, and have fun whenever you can.

Setting deadlines for myself isn’t always healthy, although they can sometimes help me to feel motivated. Sure, I would love to turn my life around in an instant, but that’s not realistic. I need to hold on to the positive aspects of my life, especially when they are overshadowed by the negatives, and see what happens.

 

Patience

I haven’t posted for a while because I have been going through a bad patch. The trouble with mental health problems is they can convince you that nothing you do will have an effect. There’s no point in writing a blog post, you think, because it will be crap, nobody will read it and it won’t help anyone. So you convince yourself it’s best not to do anything, which is easy since you don’t feel like doing anything. Nothing changes, of course, because you’re not taking action. You just feel worse and worse.

Rose

It’s frustrating when I feel this way, because downward spirals are hard to escape. I tell myself  I’m waiting until I feel better before I work towards my goals, but not working towards my goals usually makes me feel worse.

I’m finding things particularly difficult right now, because even when I have been working towards a goal on a regular basis, my progress seems very slow. Losing weight, for instance, is once of my priorities for this year. I have a lot to lose, so I hoped the first half would drop off quickly. It didn’t, but that was okay when I was losing weight at a steady pace. Then it stopped. For no apparent reason. I don’t think I’m a particularly stupid person, so I knew that plateaus are to be expected and I would lose more weight if I stuck to my plan, but it’s hard not to have an emotional reaction. While I knew I should lose weight again, because I was sticking to my diet and exercise plan, part of me was screaming “you are failing, you are useless, you are hopeless.”

My plateau didn’t last for very long (about a month), but I realised it reflected my attitude towards many of my goals. I find it difficult to keep going when I don’t see results.

I recently read a book called Drive by Daniel H Pink, which highlights the importance of intrinsic motivation. I nodded along, recognising that focusing on external rewards is not conducive to motivation, but I also admit that I put too much emphasis on recognition. I feel insecure sometimes and need a gold star to boost my confidence. It feels pathetic to admit this, but tangible results keep me motivated and when they are absent, or not good enough (in my own opinion), I find it hard to stay the course. I start doubting myself.

I’m currently waiting for the final result of my first Psychology BSc module (I’m studying part time with the Open University) and it’s torture. My first 3 assignments got 95 apiece, so I would have to mess up in epic style to fail the module on the fourth assignment, which seems unlikely. But, again, while I realise this on a logical level, the part of me which is entangled with my mental health issues keeps shouting about how I’m stupid and must be an idiot to expect anything good to come of studying.

However, I was forced to take action in spite of these negative thoughts. I needed to enrol on my modules for the next academic year and apply for my student loan. I had to ignore the voice telling me I was jinxing myself, because the alternative would be to wait another year before continuing my studies. If I do that each year I complete a module, I would take 10 years to complete the degree, instead of the anticipated 5 years. Obviously, that would be ridiculous, so I did what I needed to do.

Taking action is almost always an act of faith. You have to trust that your actions will make a difference.

Keeping faith is especially difficult when you are working towards a big goal. I do my best to split big goals into smaller ones, acknowledging and celebrating small successes, but some goals are so big that you have to wait ages (so it seems) for even tiny signs of progress. The answer isn’t easy, but it’s essential: you need to focus on the process, not results.

Focusing on the process requires faith and patience. It’s about building the habits which will determine long term success. In short, it’s a long, hard slog.

I was googling “how to stay motivated during weight loss” earlier today and was reminded of something I already knew: motivation follows action. If you wait to feel motivated before taking action, you could be waiting forever. Time is always passing, whether you take action or not. What will you regret not doing 6 months, a year or several years from today?

So that’s why I’m forcing myself to keep going. It’s hard to make short term sacrifices without getting results, but my future self will thank me. I would rather turn down cake today than get diabetes in a few years. I would rather get stuck into studying this year than regret not seizing my opportunity 10 years down the line. I want to create healthy habits which will lead to my ideal life, or at least a better life than the one I’m living.

There’s a comment which writers often hear that has become a bit of a joke: “I would like to write a novel” — or its variant “I wish I had time to write a novel” — often accompanied by a wistful expression. The implication is that writing a novel is something people only do if they are privileged enough to have time and few other concerns, but this simply isn’t true. Thousands of novels have been written in segments of time snatched from busy days. If writing a novel (or doing anything else) is a priority for you, you can find a way to achieve it. The difference between people who say “I want to write a novel” but never do it and people who write novels is not a lack of time.

We all have 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and you can choose how it’s spent. It always passes, whatever you do.

Remembering this is, for me, a work in progress. I waste a lot of time; mental illness wastes a lot of time. But when I am well enough to take action, I try to force myself to take action. Waiting for results is frustrating, but waiting for motivation is a massive waste of time.

I will keep slogging, trying to achieve my goals, because not doing anything guarantees failure. It won’t be easy and I doubt I will ever learn to become patient all the time, but it’s necessary if I want to improve my life. Right now, it’s challenging. Maybe next week, month or year I will feel more motivated and gain more results. Either way, I plan to keep going.

I just hope Future Hayley will be grateful!

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.

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.

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.

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.

Changing Set Points

I have been finding things difficult lately, which feels strange to admit because my life is, in general, better than it has been for years. While I still have bad days (and some really awful days), my typical daily mood has been turned up a few notches.

Apple blossom and sky

This means I can (usually) practice basic self-care without huge effort, such as going for a walk and cooking healthy meals instead of grabbing junk food. Other tasks are harder to accomplish, like finding the confidence to submit my short stories and attending appointments on my own. It seems my “set point” of mood and ability has increased.

An improved set point is, of course, a Good Thing. I have no idea whether I will ever recover completely from my mental illnesses, but this improvement is an encouraging sign. It gives me hope.

Life is also easier to bear, because my bad days are less intense than they were at the end of last year. Feeling lethargic, unmotivated and low in mood isn’t great, but it’s preferable to being suicidal and self-harming on a daily basis. It might take a huge effort to get out of bed, but I can do it. That’s progress.

But there is a darker side to an increased set point and the hope it brings: I feel more pressure to do better.

Acknowledging Progress

A conversation I had last week highlighted this issue. I was asked if I had had a good week and I replied that it was neither good nor bad. Nothing terrible had happened, but nothing particularly good had occurred. I felt as if I hadn’t achieved anything. I was then asked about my week in more detail. I can’t remember my precise response,but it was something along the lines of “oh yeah, I walked the dog and went to gym classes, did some writing, studied… the usual.”

“The usual.”

Not so long ago, these things were not “usual” for me. Even a year ago, I was not going to gym classes or studying. Longer ago, I couldn’t walk the dog (let alone on my own!) or sustain any kind of regular writing practice. I realised that I wasn’t giving myself credit for how far I have come and that I expect more of myself.

Expecting more of yourself can be empowering. It has motivated me to challenge myself. The possibility that I can manage my mental health well enough to prevent it from limiting my life encourages me to dream, to plan, to take action.

On the other hand, expecting more of yourself can bring disappointment. Failure is inevitable in life, but raising your hopes enough to expect the odd success can make constant failure harder to handle. In many ways, it was easier when I expected nothing good to happen to me.

Accepting The Positive

Perhaps the problem is a disconnect between accepting myself as I am and wanting more for myself. Maybe, on some level, I still consider those things a paradox. It’s a kind of superstition: if I accept myself as is, I might be jinxing the possibility of a better life.

Paradox or not, in my experience, acceptance is usually necessary before I can change things for the better. When you are fighting against your current situation, it’s difficult to achieve anything. Once you accept where you are, you can create a map and move forward.

I tend to think of acceptance as admitting and owning the negative aspects of my life. A lot of the work I did in counselling last year was about accepting my mental health issues, plus the problems that have been directly or indirectly caused by them (finances, work, relying on my parents, etc). I might not like having mental health problems, or the effects, but I need to accept them as part of my life.

However, thinking about my recent weeks has made me wonder whether I am making enough effort to accept the positive aspects of my life. I suppose my default is to think of my achievements and successes as anomalies; brief, glorious moments rising out of the dross of my everyday life. I rarely acknowledge them, especially if I consider them to be small and insignificant.

Yet the small things are important. Vital, in fact.

During my worst episodes, I couldn’t enjoy the very activities I now consider “small”. I didn’t read much, because I couldn’t concentrate. Ditto watching films. If someone did something nice for me, or even if the weather was good, I would get upset because I believed I didn’t deserve anything good. Back then, if you had told me that I would be where I am now, I would have scoffed because it seemed impossible.

I need to be more mindful about the good things in my life right now, as well as being hopeful that I can achieve things I currently think of as impossible. A few years ago, I would never have dismissed the past few weeks as “neither good nor bad” — I would have considered them to be fabulous, amazing, wonderful! Instead of letting my new set point skew my reality, making me dismissive of the positive aspects of my life, I should celebrate reaching this new version of “normal”.

Maybe this is how recovery will work for me, increasing my set point until mental illness is no longer a controlling shareholder in my life.