Season of Mists

This picture sums up what mental illness feels like for me.

Mist behind gate

You can see nothing behind the gate, because it’s obscured by mist. If I tell you there is usually a picturesque view of trees, fields and a farmhouse, you have to either take my word for it or wait until the mist clears to see whether I’m right. For now, all you can see is the mist.

It’s the same when people tell me I can manage my mental health — or recover — enough to live the kind of life I want. To live my version of success, fulfilment and happiness. I can’t see past the mist, so I don’t know whether they are telling the truth.

It’s difficult to believe the mist will clear.

Even when I know what is behind the mist, i.e. my current life as I experience it when my mental health is relatively good, it’s hard to keep faith that the mist will clear. Or to believe, if it does clear, that the view will not have changed.

Part of me is always thinking “you can’t rely on anything” — every time I think I have something figured out, it has a tendency to fall apart. This isn’t always true, to be fair, but it has been true often enough in my experience that I tend to default to thinking everything will go wrong because that’s easier to deal with than the disappointment when I get my hopes up.

Long term mental illness wears you down that way. You think you can outrun it by working hard and using your coping strategies, but sometimes it catches you anyway and you lose stuff. Stuff like jobs, money, friends, self-esteem, confidence.

The mist is always ready to descend.

When things are going relatively well, you can’t fully relax or be optimistic because the mist is still hanging on the horizon. In a matter of minutes, it could creep up on you and obliterate the landscape.

With that in mind, I try to keep going in the right direction — even when I can’t see far ahead.

I use my compasses (life values like creativity, compassion and curiosity) and I hope that my next steps will become — and remain — clear.

Sometimes they do. Other times I’m wandering in the mist, lost, scared, alone and confused.

So when I talk about being scared of getting ill again, I’m not talking about the sniffles or feeling a bit subdued — I’m talking about the mist descending and obliterating everything in my life.

Mellow fruitfulness.

I keep reminding myself that according to Keats, autumn is not only the season of mists. There are blessings, which I try to seek out. I think I should think of my life in the same way: the mists may always be waiting to close in on me, but my life and experiences can still be fruitful.

 

Winterproofing

I tend to think of the clocks going back as a negative event: winter has always been a difficult time for me, bringing both physical illnesses and a decline in mental health. The past two winters have been particularly awful. Last winter, I was ill for nearly four months solid, with the flu, throat/chest infections and other viruses wreaking havoc. I couldn’t use the coping strategies I had put in place, as even the easiest took too much effort. My depression and anxiety got worse.

Sunrise

This year, I hope things will be different — but last winter has taught me that you can do almost everything “right” and still succumb to illness. 

There has been one benefit to the clocks going back that I haven’t appreciated/experienced in past years: the lighter mornings. Since I get up at 5am nowadays and take the dogs out around 6:10am, the change is obvious. We could walk up the lane again this morning, after being forced to take a different route (with streetlights) for the past few weeks. As you can see in the photo, the sunrise was glorious.

Prioritising Self-Care

While I can’t control everything, I am making sure I stick to my coping strategies and self-care activities. In particular, I am being strict about using my SAD lamp and exercising. I know it probably seems ridiculous to people who don’t understand how important these activities are in managing my mental health, but it’s necessary.

Sure, I feel like I’m being awkward when I tell my friends I can’t go out on the evenings I have gym classes, but I don’t want to risk damaging my mental health. My routine, combined with the physical exercise, helps me stay healthy. When I feel guilty for being so selfish, I remind myself that when I got ill last winter, I couldn’t socialise for weeks — being unavailable a few evenings a week is preferable to being unavailable throughout the winter months.

I’m also being stricter with strategies which I should implement more regularly/frequently than I do at present. Wanting to avoid a repeat of last winter is a great motivator! I’m trying to eat healthy meals, even if I eat junk as well, and making an effort to meditate. I know I could do better, but stressing out about not doing better is counterproductive…

Finding Pleasure in Winter

I have being trying to focus on my strengths and the positive aspects of my life recently, so I’m trying to take the same approach to winter. It can be difficult to appreciate the pleasurable side of the cold, wet and dark months, but it’s not impossible.

Winter creates the perfect atmosphere for reading ghost stories, which I enjoy. It’s also a good backdrop for hot chocolate, warm puddings and spicy curries. Brussels sprouts are in season, which I adore (seriously) and I can watch films or read without feeling I should be outside, enjoying the sunshine.

I like a lot of things about Christmas, too — though it can bring its own challenges. Seeing Christmas lights when walking the dogs, buying presents and listening to cheesy Christmas songs are all fun. It marks the winter solstice, so brings hope that spring will come. The days will get longer again and it feels like I’m progressing with the changing seasons — in theory, anyway! In the meantime, it’s back to ghost stories and hot chocolate.

Facing Down the Fear

I’m terrified of getting ill again. I dread feeling like I did last winter. However, worrying and getting stressed will only increase the likelihood of getting ill.

Instead, I’m attempting a more pragmatic approach. I will do everything I reasonably can to avoid getting ill (hence I got a flu shot last week, for the first time!), but I can’t beat myself up if I get ill. Whatever will be, will be.

It’s the same old story, really: there is no point in worrying about stuff which might or might not happen. Of course, knowledge and practice are different things — especially when you have anxiety…

I refuse to fixate on whether or not I will get ill. In fact, I accept that I probably will get a few viruses and colds. I accept that my depression will become more difficult to manage. But I can focus on what I’m able to do and put contingency plans in place.

Coping with winter is difficult, but I’m not completely powerless. I can choose to accept the possibility of illness while doing my best to keep it at bay. It’s my best chance of staying mentally and physically healthy.

Changing Routines

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

Autumn sunrise

I started getting up at 5am.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

It initiates an upward spiral.

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

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

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

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

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

 

My routine is still a work in progress.

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

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

 

Overinvesting Spoons

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

Spoons

This got me thinking and led to some interesting questions…

 

How many spoons should you invest?

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

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

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

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

 

Which activities count as investments?

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

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

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

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

 

Are bigger investments better than smaller ones?

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

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

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

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

 

What can you do if you overinvest?

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

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

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

 

Avoiding overinvestment can be difficult.

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

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

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

Refighting Battles

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


Winding lane

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

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

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

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

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

 

And there are many battles to refight.

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

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

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

 

Yet every battle you win makes you a little stronger.

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

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

Subdued

I have been feeling subdued and demotivated over the past week. There’s no particular reason; it’s just the nature of depression.

Subdued meerkat

But the nature of depression, even after 15+ years, is frustrating.

I’m sick of it. I know, on a logical level, that the low mood will pass at its own rate. I know I can do all I can to practice self-care and use coping strategies, which will help reduce the impact of my dip in mood. I know this is a challenge I have to deal with, perhaps for the rest of my life, and I just have to do my best to achieve my goals when the cloud lifts a little. Yet knowing all of this doesn’t make life easier.

I feel quite useless when my depression gets worse. I have no energy and can’t work towards my goals — certainly not as much as I can when I feel better.

 

The only option is acceptance.

I can’t change the fact that I struggle with mental illness. I can try to manage it as best I can, but my coping strategies and activities won’t always be enough. And that’s okay.

It has taken me a long time to start thinking of my mental health as an aspect of my overall health, rather than a reflection of my shortcomings. I know plenty of people still regard mental illness as weakness — and I know they are wrong, because it takes incredible strength to keep going when your symptoms prevent you from living life on your own terms.

So I will try not to be so harsh on myself as I carry on through this drop in mood. I will do what I can, when I can — and try not to stress about the slowness of my progress.

9 Months After Antidepressants

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

Pill packets

There has been no dramatic change.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Antidepressants are an important part of my story.

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

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

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

 

Stopping antidepressants is an achievement.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

It’s still early days.

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

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

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

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

The Next Few Steps

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

 

Stepping stones

 

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

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

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

You need faith to take those next few steps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Weathering The Storm

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

 

Seascape

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Walking My Own Trek

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

The Lane aka my main training ground

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

 

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

What walking my own trek means to me:

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

 

Comparing myself to others is stupid.

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

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

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

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

 

My contributions, however small, are valuable.

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

#TeamAmnesty

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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