Living Option B

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

Machu Picchu
My Option B looks like this. Sometimes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Option Bs will keep cropping up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledging that you are living Option B can be refreshing.

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

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

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

Reawakening

Spring helps me feel better. The warmer weather and increased hours of daylight encourage me to do things which benefit my mental health, like exercising and spending time outside. Sunlight also has an effect on your hormones, which helps you to sleep better and improves your mood — great for people like me, who struggle with depression and insomnia.

Many of the benefits are psychological.

Spring is a time of hope and reminds you that nature follows cycles. Just as trees and flowers burst back into life, there is a possibility of emerging from mental illness. This emergence may be a complete recovery or, as is more likely in my own experience, a period of relative wellness during which I still battle mental health problems, but can work towards my goals.

For me, mental illness follows these unpredictable cycles. Sometimes I can anticipate shifts in the cycle — such as expecting to feel generally better in the summer months — but often, my symptoms change in ways which have little rhyme or reason.

Dealing with unpredictability is difficult, but learning to roll with it is easier and better in the long run than railing against it.

Mental illness is unfair. Part of the reason why stigma surrounding mental health is so prevalent is that people don’t like to admit that mental illness can be random. They prefer to think it affects only a certain type of person or is consciously caused by sufferers. If you are nentally well, it’s probably more pleasant to believe mental illness only happens to weak people and therefore can’t happen to you. The truth, that mental illness can affect anyone at any time, is difficult to accept.

In fact, the truth is difficult to accept even when you experience mental health problems. I would LOVE to blame my mental illness on something specific I have done, because it would answer the persistent “why me?” question and means I could do something to fix it once and for all. The truth is trickier: I can adopt strategies to actively manage my mental illness, but I can’t control everything.

Sometimes you can do everything “right” and still experience a decline in mental health.

This happened to me at the end of last year. I was exercising regularly, eating healthily, socialising more and going to bed at a reasonable time every night. I was working and volunteering. I had goals. I was practically the poster child for self-managing mental illness, having stopped taking antidepressants in September. Yet my mental health got worse.

There was a clear catalyst, in the form of successive winter viruses which prevented me from doing a lot of my self-care tasks, but the sudden downward spiral in my mental health was unexpected and couldn’t be sufficiently explained by my physical illness. As I’m emerging from this episode, I’m learning to accept it as part of the cycle of my mental illness. I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t deserve to get worse — just as I didn’t deserve to get mentally ill in the first place. But it happened.

My instinct is to bemoan the fact that it happened, but it’s unhelpful. It means I focus too much on the negative aspects of my life and prevents me from making progress. Instead, I need to look forward.

 

 

Looking forward means acknowledging the past, working through it while focusing on the future.

One of the reasons I love history is how much it teaches us about the present. We can learn from both the similarities and the differences between the past and present. I have been doing this in counselling over the past couple of months, learning to recognise the patterns I have followed (often without realising) so I can break them. Finding the causes of certain patterns can be helpful, but it’s not necessary — the pattern can be broken without a full understanding of how it developed — simply noticing the pattern is the important part.

So I’m striving to create new, healthy patterns which promote good mental health. Yet I must acknowledge that it might not be enough. I could experience another episode of worse mental health despite developing these patterns.

Because there are no guarantees with mental health, it is vital to do whatever you can, when you can. Work with the cycles of your mental illness, striving towards your goals when you feel relatively well and allowing yourself respite during worse episodes.

Spring is a reawakening for me and heralds, I hope, a period of better mental health. However, if my health declines in future, I hope I can apply what I have learnt. I wish I didn’t suffer from mental illness, but I don’t want to waste time wishing things were different — I want to learn from my experiences and use them to help others. I want to look forward.

 

Accentuating The Positive

I recently read a very interesting book, Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression by Miriam Akhtar, which has helped me to manage my mental health. I was already a fan of positive psychology, but hadn’t read anything which applied the approach to mental illness. The standard line given in books on positive psychology is that whereas most psychology focuses on what’s wrong, positive psychology concentrates on what people can do to feel good — rather than fixing problems, it circumvents them to find solutions.

I personally believe that there are benefits to either approach when treating mental health problems: there is no need to choose one and no reason why they cannot be used simultaneously. While this book focuses on depression, the strategies it suggests can also be used to manage other mental health problems — in my case, I find them useful for anxiety and borderline personality disorder. Another advantage of using this book is that it explains the theory behind everything without being dry or too academic. It’s suitable for any level of knowledge regarding positive psychology; whether you have never heard of it or if you are familiar with the subject, the advice is pertinent and never patronising.

As always, I would never recommend altering your course of treatment without consulting your doctor or another mental health professional, but an advantage of these strategies is that the chance of them causing harm is minimal — the majority will be ineffective at worst. If you are unsure about whether a particular technique might have adverse effects, discuss it with a mental health professional first. I will also caution that there is a lot of trial and error involved in implementing the strategies effectively, although it is definitely worth persevering, so don’t be discouraged if some of them don’t seem to work for you straightaway.

So what are the strategies? They are divided into broad chapters which examine each topic in detail: savouring, gratitude, mindfulness meditation, learning optimism, developing resilience, connecting with others, vitality and focusing on your strengths. There are several techniques desrcibed for each strategy, as well as advice on how to apply them and details on how they can boost your mood. There are also recommendations on which other strategies to try if one resonates with you.

I love how practical Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression is — the focus is on applying the theory to your life and counteracting the effects of depression. It demonstrates how small changes can spiral into big improvements and left me feeling empowered. I think it’s particularly helpful for people like myself, who are learning how to manage their mental health and need reminders of how we can help ourselves on the more challenging days. I also like the optimism of positive psychology; I have spent many years trying to fix my problems and the shift in focus to how I can feel better despite my problems is refreshing. Of course, that’s not to say that I won’t continue trying to solve my problems in addition to using these strategies, but sometimes it’s easier and more effective to look at what’s going right in life and how we can create more of those things.

Reads to Rewrite Your Life 6: Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is an exploration of the state of flow, which occurs when you are challenged by an activity but feel skilled enough to negotiate the tasks involved without arousing anxiety. Flow is most easily recognised by its characteristic effect: a feeling of timelessness. It’s difficult to describe, but everybody has experienced flow. Think about all the times you have been lost in an activity, unaware of anything else around you except what the activity requires.

A flow state can be achieved while performing a wide variety of activities. Reading and writing are common flow activities for me, but I can also achieve the state while running, doing Sudoku puzzles and drawing. Other people have experienced flow through activities such as gardening, horse riding, wood carving, debating, dancing, knitting, cooking, rock climbing… The list is extensive! The main distinction between flow activities and leisure activities which don’t induce a state of flow is that the former involves a high level of engagement, whereas the latter may be a largely passive experience. For example: when you are watching a film which challenges you intellectually so that you are constantly interpreting the images and sound, you may enter a state of flow. In contrast, if you are watching a film which is enjoyable but not stimulating, you may experience pleasure but you won’t experience flow.

Flow explains the intricacies of the flow state, backed up by Csikszentmihalyi’s research, and provides instruction for cultivating flow. People who experience more flow in their lives are happier. In addition to flow being an enjoyable and satisfying state in itself, flow activities tend to result in achievements and improved skills. The activities which are most conducive to flow tend to be personal passions, which help to create meaning in life. By cultivating flow, you will improve multiple aspects of your life.

Part of the beauty of flow is that it’s nothing new and anyone can achieve a flow state, but Csikszentmihalyi’s book acts as a catalyst. It’s useful for people with mental health problems, especially depression, who have lost their sense of purpose and gain less joy from life than they would like. I first read it during a challenging point in my life and I realised that flow could offer a way out; cultivating flow became part of my treatment plan. Flow activities removed me from the misery I was experiencing and helped me, over a long period of time, find meaning in my life.

 

About the Reads to Rewrite Your Life series

This series discusses books which have helped to change my perspective on life. Many will be self-help guides, some will be classics and others will be a little different… I aim to provide an eclectic mix to inspire everyone, regardless of whether or not you have mental health issues.

  1. Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway – Susan Jeffers
  2. Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking – Susan Cain
  3. The How of Happiness – Sonja Lyubomirsky
  4. The Art of Non Conformity – Chris Guillebeau
  5. Wherever You Go, There You Are – Jon Kabat-Zinn
  6. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  7. Undoing Depression – Richard O’Connor