Changing Tides

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

Seascape

An Ending

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

A Beginning.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Adjusting

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

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

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

 

 

A Big Jump Forward

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Logically, this means that failure doesn’t matter.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

So here’s my big jump…

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

Relinquishing Fantasies

As my Machu Picchu trek looms closer (just over a week away), I have to let go of many hopes, goals and expectations I had regarding the challenge. Trekking to Machu Picchu has been a dream of mine since I can remember and I wanted its realisation to be a focal point, encouraging me to transform my life. In reality, it feels like everything has gone wrong since I signed up for the challenge.

Sunset

So here are the fantasies I have to relinquish:

I would be a lot slimmer

While I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to prioritise weight loss (I have had eating disorders in the past and old habits can set in without much persuading if I’m not careful), I thought I would lose a significant amount of weight through exercising more and eating more healthily to fuel the exercise. I have lost nearly 30lbs, but I had more than double that amount in mind. I’m so overweight that I’m not sure people can tell I’ve lost any weight.

The fantasy me would have been more confident and at ease in her body. She wouldn’t be worrying about whether she would need a seatbelt extender on the plane. She wouldn’t be concerned about people looking at her and thinking she hasn’t worked hard enough to train for the challenge.

Yet I can acknowledge, on a logical level, that clinging onto the 30lb weight loss is pretty good, considering I tend to comfort eat when depressed and my depression took a nosedive over winter. When you are focusing on getting through each day, food can feel like the only thing which gives you pleasure or energy — though the pleasure and energy are fleeting and soon replaced by their opposites. There’s also the strong possibility that if I had lost 60lbs, I would still feel dissatisfied…

 

I would be a lot fitter.

I had visions of myself feeling fit, strong and invincible. I threw myself into a new exercise routine, walking and going to gym classes. Then I got ill, physically and mentally. Winter viruses stopped me training for almost 4 months, giving me a constant viral chest infection which obviously couldn’t be treated with antibiotics. This took its toll on my mental health, since exercise was my main strategy for managing my anxiety and depression since I stopped taking medication in September.

I have managed to resume walking — even walking on my own, which I hadn’t done for over a decade until last March — but I’m too scared to go back to gym classes. I’m embarrassed to admit this and I don’t know why I’m so scared, but anxiety isn’t a rational illness. I have no idea whether I can complete the trek, but I hope I can. I wish I was stronger and fitter, but getting through the past 6 months has taught me that I’m mentally strong, so hopefully my grit and determination will get me through.

 

My mental health would be a lot better.

When I signed up for the challenge, I was enjoying a period of relatively good mental health and believed I was on an upward trajectory. I thought I had control of my mental illness and would continue to improve. This did not happen.

Instead, my mental health deteriorated over winter and I’m still struggling with anxiety and depression. It doesn’t seem fair, hut maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be: I talk about encouraging other people with mental health problems to chase their dreams, so here I am, tackling an enormous challenge when a large part of me feels like hiding away and sobbing in a corner.

 

I would reach my £1000 fundraising goal.

A quick glance at my fundraising page will show you that I haven’t reached my target. I have been pledged a couple more donations, so will have raised over £700 for Amnesty International and maybe I will hit £750, but I can’t and don’t expect more than that. I don’t want to seem ungrateful, because I appreciate every single donation and have been touched by people’s generosity. I have received sponsorship from people I have never met offline and from people who don’t have a lot of money to spare. Thank you to everyone for supporting me and human rights.

I’m disappointed because I haven’t been able to do a lot of the things I had planned to raise funds. I knew I wouldn’t be able to organise big events, thanks to my mental health (which is one of several reasons for my self-funding my challenge), but mental illness has prevented me from doing things I thought I would be able to cope with. I had hoped to do a better job.

 

My career would be going a lot better.

I also believed I would be in a better situation with my work by now. While there have been a couple of wonderful developments, like volunteering at The Project, I’m struggling. The job with a CV writing company, which I thought I could rely on for regular income alongside my other writing endeavours, turned out to have a very lax attitude towards paying me — I was paid months late, after sending emails threatening legal action. Maybe I would have bounced back better if my depression and anxiety hadn’t gotten worse, but they did. It’s all a bit of a disaster.

It’s hard to accept this situation because my expectations were not high. I just wanted to feel like I had a little more direction and a little more money in my pocket. Instead, my debt has increased and I’m afraid my Machu Picchu challenge will turn out to be a giant waste of time and money.

 

Relinquishing fantasies is difficult because it involves facing up to harsh realities, which have been influenced by both forces outside of my control and my own failings. I look back and wonder what I could, would or should have done differently. I wonder whether I’m just stupid for attempting the challenge.
But there is one fantasy I cling to, which I hope will become reality:

My Machu Picchu challenge will be a springboard into a better life.

I hope the challenge will teach me a lot about myself and provide me with guidance. I think it could have a fantastic effect on my confidence and motivation. Training has reminded me of how much better I feel when I’m fitter and I want to lead a more active lifestyle from now on. I have realised that I’m resilient and can apply the lessons I have learnt from pursuing this goal, despite the disappointments and setbacks, to achieving other goals.

Preparing for the trek has also shown me that many people support me in this quest; I want to show them that their support is appreciated and (hopefully) deserved. 

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.

 

 

The Delights of Anxiety — and More Glimmers of Hope

Anxiety sucks. It makes things which you have done many times before, even easy things, very difficult.

Case in point: modern jive classes. It took me two years before I became confident enough to try jive and even then, I met my best friend in the car park so I wouldn’t have to go in alone. Since that first time, however, I have been to lots of classes — several on my own. Yet when I went last night, after 2-3 months of not going, I was extremely anxious.

My hands were shaking so much I could barely get the money out of my purse. Of course, I then felt like an idiot for shaking so I got more anxious and kicked the chair when I was trying to sit down. I felt even more embarrassed and anxious after that…

Thankfully, modern technology saved the day and I focused on my phone to distract myself from the negative thoughts running through my mind. Once the class started, I felt a little better because I had to focus on trying to control the movement of my limbs. After a while, I began to enjoy the class — despite my nerves.

That is a glimmer of hope for me: despite feeling anxious, I had fun.

There have been several glimmers of hope this week, after a tricky weekend. On my walk yesterday (a glimmer of hope in itself, since I hadn’t been walking much lately), I saw more signs that spring is coming. As you can see from the pictures, snowdrops are in abundance and primroses are beginning to bud. There were also lots of daffodils shooting up. These are such little things, but they reassure me that the warmer weather and lighter evenings will come and the difficult times will pass.

 

The trouble with anxiety is there’s no easy path: you can battle it and feel awful as you try to push outside your comfort zone, or you can give up and let it rule your life, sucking every bit of pleasure out until you stay at home every day and do nothing fun.

I have tried the latter in the past and it just made me more miserable, exacerbating my depression. Letting anxiety rule my life is not an option. But that doesn’t make battling it any easier.

I have let anxiety rule me too much in recent months. I have developed a fear of driving, for instance, so have been avoiding it as much as I can. Last night, I drove on my own for the first time in 3 months — a couple of weeks ago, I drove home with my mum in the car, which was the first time I had driven at all in nearly 3 months.

Pushing through the anxiety is not easy, but it’s necessary if I don’t want it to limit my life to a massive extent.

The weird thing is, once I started driving I became less anxious. I had to focus on the road, of course, which introduces an element of mindfulness and takes me out of my head, but I also found it easier than I had been dreading. I had been letting a couple of bad incidents — which weren’t actually that bad, since they involved scraping things at 2mph — outweigh the hundreds of journeys I have made without incident.

 

Today has brought more glimmers of hope, which are helping to lessen my anxiety.

I had a counselling assessment and will now be starting counselling, which is a huge relief. It helped a lot when I had counselling at the beginning of last year and led to many little achievements — including starting the aforementioned modern jive classes! I hope it will have a similar effect this time and help me to build my confidence, control my anxiety, get more motivated and feel less stressed.

I have also had 3 donations for my Machu Picchu challenge. One of the  sponsors is 3 years old, so I suspect her mum (who also donated today) helped, but I’m still counting it as 3! I’m now just £10 away from my initial target of £250 and my ultimate goal of raising £1000 for Amnesty International seems a lot more possible.

I have also had messages of support from a couple of other women who are doing the challenge with me, which has helped to reassure me. They both urged me to focus on what the trip means to me, rather than stressing about whether people will think I have raised enough. I know they’re right — I have wanted to trek to Machu Picchu my whole life and I need to appreciate that, instead of obsessing over what others think.

I feel like I have turned a corner this week: I’m still very anxious and quite depressed, but I am more able to glimpse hope. I might feel stupid for finding things like driving and going to jive class difficult, but at least I did it — that’s got to count for something!

Writerly Expectations

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And remember, write like a motherfucker.

Anxiety Isn’t Logical

The news that Zayn Malik pulled out of a recent gig due to anxiety arrived at an appropriate time for me — over the weekend, my anxiety had taken a sideswipe at me. I managed to go to an open day held by a writing group I would like to join, a prospect which would have been beyond my consideration a few months ago, since it involved walking into a room full of strangers and talking to them. I was pleased with how it went; despite feeling too nervous to approach people, I talked to those who approached me and enjoyed myself. A couple of hours later, my anxiety prevented me from doing something which should have been relatively easy.

I had arranged to meet a friend for her birthday drinks in a pub I have frequented since I was 16. Sure, it was bound to be busy (there was football on, don’t you know), but I was familiar with the place and knew at least a few of the people who would be attending. Then, as I was reading and waiting for the time of my friends’ arrival, everything got on top of me and I freaked out.

I was overwhelmed by anxiety. I wanted to go home, to run away, to get out of there. I tried to calm myself down, but it didn’t work. I was drowning in a sea of fear and dread.

I did all I could do in that situation — phoned my dad and asked him to come and get me ASAP, then waited and tried to hold it together enough to disguise the fact that I was crying. I think I did quite well, especially considering I wanted to sob very loudly.

When I got home, I felt better anxiety-wise. I was safe. However, when anxiety prevents you from participating in an activity, especially one as important to you as celebrating a friend’s birthday, it is followed by the gamut of associated negative emotions: guilt, frustration, anger, sadness, loneliness…

Given this, it shows how ridiculous are the opinions of people who criticise Zayn Malik and others who suffer from anxiety. No matter what these ignorant idiots say, you can bet that the person suffering with anxiety has told themselves the same — and worse. You can bet that we are kicking ourselves for “letting” anxiety get the better of us. You can bet that we are astounded by the sheer illogicality of anxiety preventing us from doing something similar to what we have done many times before.

Yet anxiety is illogical. I have observed this many times throughout my life, yet the senselessness of this fact still confounds me.

Whether anxiety stops you from meeting your friends, performing onstage or leaving the house, it feels the same. There is still the overwhelming fear — it might be fear of looking stupid, fear of getting hurt or simply an unidentifiable fear.

Because of the vague nature of anxiety, it is difficult to explain to those who have never experienced anxiety. How can I explain that I’m afraid to enter a shop alone when I don’t know what precisely I am afraid of? How can I explain that I fear something worse than anything that can be pinpointed, even death?

I’m glad that Zayn Malik was courageous enough to be honest about his anxiety, because we need to talk about it a lot more. I haven’t read any of the comments about Zayn Malik on social media, but from what I have heard about some of these comments, there are a lot of people who need to be educated about anxiety and its effects.

Anxiety isn’t something sufferers use as a convenient excuse not to do something — it’s a debilitating condition which often prevents us from doing things we want to do. Regardless of whether or not we have done those things in the past.

Permission to Be Fabulous

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

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

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

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

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

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

I realised that these issues all relate to one concept:

Permission

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

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

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

External Permission

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

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

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

Internal Permission

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

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

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

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

Consistent Permission

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

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

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

All-Encompassing Permission

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

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

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

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

So who are you not to give yourself permission?

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

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

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

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

Go ahead — give yourself permission to be fabulous!

Taking a Leap

I achieved one of the major goals I set for this year: as of yesterday, I am no longer on benefits. I stopped claiming ESA.

People keep telling me how awesome this is — even when I mentioned my intentions, people responded with enormous enthusiasm — but my overarching emotion at the moment is not joy or relief or excitement. It’s fear.

All leaps are a leap of faith

Why am I scared? Because I have lost my safety net. Living on benefits is no fun, for sure, and I didn’t receive a lot (just over £5200 a year, which would be impossible to live on if it weren’t for the support of my parents), but it was a regular income. Now, as a self-employed writer, I am responsible for providing myself with as regular an income as I can. Part of me wants to run away and hide.

Yet I know that this is an essential step towards achieving my long-term goals. I also know that there is a good chance I will be able to make it work, aided by my new job writing CVs for an international company. In some ways, that makes me more anxious: when there is a good chance of success, failure seems less excusable. It puts more pressure on me because there are more expectations.

So why am I putting myself through this additional stress? Because the alternative is less palatable. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life on benefits, never able to buy my own home or even move out of my parents’ house. I want more than a miserable existence punctuated by the odd fun night out. I want to earn a living from the work I enjoy and I want my life to be meaningful.

I believe this is possible. I don’t have a great deal of faith right now, but I found enough faith (and hope) to make the leap.

Accepting Your Emotions

Mental illness can bombard you with a lot of emotions. Many of them are understandable; a lot don’t seem to make any sense. People will be more empathetic in regard to some of your emotions than others. You will find some emotions easier to deal with than others. Some emotions can cause other emotions, such as when you feel irritated and then feel guilty for feeling irritated. It’s important to acknowledge all of your emotions and their effects.

You have the right to feel however you feel. Anyone who tells you otherwise may mean well, but they are not being helpful. You cannot control your emotions; you can only control how you express them. When people say “you’ve got to control your temper” they don’t mean that you should repress your anger, or deny its expression: they mean that you need to learn how to express your anger in safe, constructive ways. When I first read Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway by Susan Jeffers, it was a revelation. She pointed out that feeling fear is inevitable, but you can choose how to act in the face of fear. It made me realise that everybody feels fear – many to the same extent as I do – and that I didn’t need to remain paralysed by my fear.

Accepting my fear allowed me to start tackling my anxiety problems. It’s not a linear process and it’s not easy, but I’m now aware of a new possibility: that I can cope with my anxiety even if it doesn’t go away, that I can take action towards achieving my goals even if the anxiety is still present. In short, it helped me to accept my anxiety.

Accepting your emotions is a vital step in learning how to deal with them. Sometimes it will be more difficult to accept your emotions, such as when you feel sad on a happy occasion and don’t know why, but it will get easier with practice. Start by simply observing how you feel. I have found it useful to do this with an app called Moodtrack, but you might prefer to keep an “emotions journal” either digitally or on paper.

Try not to judge your emotions – just acknowledge them and note any factors that might be affecting your emotions. These could be external, such as a friend getting a new job when you are unemployed, or internal, like feeling exhausted because you didn’t sleep last night. You may begin to see patterns almost immediately, or it might take several weeks (or even months) before you can analyse your emotions and figure out the most common triggers. Again, don’t judge. Your patterns and triggers are unique. Having unusual reactions to certain things does not make your emotions less valid – nor does it make you a bad person.

Once you accept your emotions and their causes, you can begin to develop coping strategies. You may need professional help to do this (I was lucky enough to receive a year of drama therapy, which was amazing), so get help and support if you need it. Dealing with mental health issues is difficult and there is no shame in seeing a therapist, psychiatrist or counsellor. Even if you are not mentally ill, you may benefit from seeing a mental health professional or life coach. After all, if you had a physical injury you would see a physiotherapist without shame – you don’t have to cope on your own.

You might be surprised by which emotions you find hardest to accept. Often, these can be positive emotions like joy, excitement and contentment. I found it difficult to accept feeling happy, for example, when I was depressed. I would feel happy for a couple of hours when I was with my friends, then sink into a deep depression. I thought that I didn’t have the right to be happy and the brief happiness made the depression harder to bear because it proved that I was capable of feeling better. I repressed these happy periods a lot, because the contrast with how I felt the majority of the time was so painful. It was years before I learnt how to enjoy the happy periods amidst the sadness, frustration, fear, anger and numbness I felt over 90% of the time – but I got there in the end.

You can learn to accept all of your emotions, even ones which might feel dangerous or taboo. It can be a long, laborious and scary process, but it’s worth the effort.