Tag Archives: Reassess your past

Creating Meaning

One of the most challenging aspects of my mental health struggles has been overcoming my belief that my life was meaningless and therefore had no value. It became a self-perpetuating cycle: mental illness made me believe my life had no meaning and prevented me from doing anything which would give it meaning, which became evidence that my life was destined to be meaningless. I never realised I had the ability to create meaning in my life as it was, even during the worst times.

Apple blossom and sky

Choose your own path.

The first realisation was an obvious one: people create meaningful lives in different ways. Sometimes they focus on one aspect, such as having children or a specific career path. Many people create meaning “on the side” through art or charity work. There is no standard method of creating meaning, although there are many well-trodden paths.

Think about what you want — if I could grant all your wishes right now, what would your life look like? Choose what works for you: the values you prioritise, activities you enjoy, the goals you most want to achieve.

Creating meaning is about the process, not results, so don’t worry about whether you will be able to accomplish everything. Be open to changing direction as you learn more about yourself. At this stage, you are just beginning to explore how you find and create meaning.


 Create a meaningful narrative.

Storytelling is a fantastic way of creating meaning and making sense of your life. What narrative do you want to tell? What do you want to rewrite or edit? You get to decide. You can’t change your past, but you can choose the stories you tell about it.

Forming a clear narrative from the chaos of life is empowering. You can use your story to guide your decisions and create meaning. For example, I decided the story I want to tell is about using my suffering to connect with others through my writing, whether blogging or fiction. Along the way, I want to support, encourage and inspire other people who have mental health issues.

Think about the stories other people tell about their own lives, especially those who have overcome adversity and create positive outcomes. Do any of them resonate with you? Again, don’t stress about whether you can live up to the ending you want. Your story will change many times, even if the core narrative remains the same, often in amazing and unforeseen ways.


The mosaic approach.

If you are struggling to find a narrative thread, try thinking of your life as a mosaic: you can create meaning from discrete activities and relationships, without needing to tie it all together. For instance, you may enjoy running and create meaning by occasionally fundraising when you participate in longer races. Maybe you volunteer for your church and find meaning in helping meet others’ spiritual needs (as well as your own). Perhaps you are an infrequent traveller and find meaning in exploring new cultures when you are able to get away. You could do all of these or a combination of different things.

There doesn’t need to be a single, overarching meaning across all aspects of your life. Yes, some people seem to have it, but you don’t need to. In fact, there might already be a predominant meaning which you haven’t yet identified, or perhaps never will. Your life isn’t a business proposal: you don’t need to reduce it to an elevator pitch.


Make it personal.

Creating meaning is extremely individual. You don’t need to do anything “Important” or “Selfless”. If you don’t follow your own values and preferences, you will find it very difficult to create a life which is meaningful to you. Copying other people won’t work.

You don’t need to save the world to live a meaningful life. You can create meaning in small, precious ways: crafting a beautiful piece of furniture, growing roses, reading to your child.


Mine your past and present.

Where can you already find meaning in your life? Everyone can find meaning, so “nowhere” is not a valid answer. Do you create stuff? Cook for your family? Blog? Study? Spend time with people you love? Look after a pet? Read? Walk outside? You can find meaning in all of these activities.

Check your definition of “meaning” — remember, you don’t need to save the world — and think about how other people and yourself benefit from what you do/have done. Small acts of kindness, chatting with someone, hobbies you enjoy… these have a positive impact in themselves, but can also cause a ripple effect.

Simple tasks can have meaningful outcomes which emerge much later. For example, I started spending a lot of time watching films during the worst phases of depression (well, second worst — I did nothing during the very worst points), which reignited my love of film and eventually led to a Film Studies BA. Going to university helped my confidence a lot and I would be living a very different (worse) life without it. I stayed on to study for a Creative Writing MA and continue to pursue a career in writing fiction. I didn’t know any of this when I first started watching more films and 12 years later, I think I’m only beginning to recognise its impact.

Mining your life for meaning can be slow and you may have to chip away for ages before you find a vein of gold, but it’s invaluable. Time spent searching for meaning and experimenting with ways of creating meaning is never wasted.


Consider alternative perspectives.

Ask other people about what gives their life meaning. What makes them smile? What makes their lives a little easier? You might be surprised by their answers.

How can you look at your life in different ways? For example, if you work in a supermarket and don’t find the work interesting or enjoyable (I’ve been there!), there are several perspectives which demonstrate how it can be meaningful. Perhaps the money you earn supports your family or allows you to pursue your goals. You might be the only person some people talk to all week, therefore your work helps them feel less lonely. You are developing customer service skills which will serve you well in a future job or starting your own business. The hours might enable you to spend more time with your children or pets. Maybe you take pride in doing the best job you can, for its own sake, which increases your confidence and self-esteem.

There are advantages to most situations, even if they are outweighed by the negative aspects, and they can be used to create meaning. Experiencing mental health problems is horrible and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but I have learnt many lessons from the pain and challenges. I would never go as far as to say mental illness has made my life better, but it has led to positive outcomes.

Creating meaning is an ongoing process.

Life is ever-changing, so our ways of interpreting it need to continually adapt. We may discover something which we thought would be meaningful turns out not to be. Often, we can be surprised by where we find meaning. Sometimes meaning emerges only with hindsight. As I said, creating meaning is more about the process than results.

Keep experimenting. Ask other people how they create meaning. Google it. Read for inspiration — start with Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, which is impossible to recommend highly enough. Don’t judge yourself for finding meaning in stuff which other people deem superficial or unimportant. Avoid pressuring yourself to find all the answers straightaway. Don’t compare your path to other people’s, especially if their values differ from yours.

Start small. You are already doing many meaningful things every day, even if it’s just getting through the day. 

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!

Rewriting the Rules

We all absorb our life experiences both consciously and unconsciously, identifying patterns and formulating rules. For example, I love animals and have noticed that I’m happier when I have a pet, so one of my rules — which, surprisingly, I don’t think I have articulated before today — is that living with pets is worth a lot of sacrifice because they improve my happiness and wellbeing. A lot of the rules we follow are useful, but some are harmful and the two are not mutually exclusive. Avoiding risks, for instance, is a useful strategy for avoiding unnecessary stress and anxiety. However, it also limits your potential for success and happiness. In the long term, following this rule can have many negative impacts on your life and actually increase anxiety. It took me a long time to realise this in relation to my own anxiety, but the rule I had been blindly following in order to feel better left me feeling worse.

Identifying rules is the first step

It is obvious now that my rule to reduce anxiety was a fallacy, but I lived within its constraints for a long time because I never identified the rule. I never examined its accuracy or effects. Of course, rules can be complex and some might work some of the time, rather than being consistently beneficial or detrimental. Rather than worrying about how they work (or don’t) focus on simply pinpointing them.

• What patterns do you tend to fall into — are you prone to specific types of behaviour or relationships?

• Do you avoid doing certain activities, taking on certain responsibilities or entering into certain kinds of relationship?

• What do you tell yourself you could never be?

Compile the evidence

Once you know your rules (or rather, some of them), start gathering evidence of their effects. Don’t put yourself under pressure to find every effect straightaway — just start developing an awareness of the effects. Often, it is useful to notice the effects of your rules over a period of time, as you are living them, because it gives you a bigger, clearer picture. Take as much time as you need and concentrate on one or two rules at a time to avoid overwhelming yourself.

Keep, modify or discard

Not all rules are unnecessarily restrictive, so instead of abandoning every single rule you identify, think about whether they could serve you better — or if they already serve you well. For example, one of my rules is that I always research things I want to do, sometimes to a much greater degree than the average person. While I sometimes wish I could be more spontaneous, this rule serves me well in the whole. It encourages me to develop my knowledge and skills, which helps me achieve more than I would probably otherwise achieve. I follow this rule most of the time because, despite some disadvantages, it improves my life.

Rules which can be modified are tricky: you need to be honest with yourself and decide whether you are adapting the rule because you are too scared to discard it, or because it will have positive effects once modified. Modifying rules is a process, so approach it as an experiment. Try out one modification and observe the effects, then try another and compare. If the effects are, on balance, still negative after several modifications, you need to discard the rule.

An example of a rule I have modified is my previous rule that I would never submit writing because I was afraid of rejection. It protected me from rejection for sure, but it also meant I would never achieve my goal of being published. I didn’t want to replace it with an opposite rule (i.e. to submit everything I write) because I don’t want to submit writing  which doesn’t reflect my best work; that would just waste my time and annoy the people to whom I submit work. So I modified the rule to this: if I have improved a piece of writing as much as I can at this point in my life and career, I should submit it. The modification means I risk rejection by submitting work, but I give myself a good chance of success by submitting only my best writing.

Discarding rules isn’t easy, but by deciding to discard a particular rule you have begun the process which will help you stop living life by the rule. Whenever you find yourself following the rule, remind yourself to re-examine the evidence.

• What are the alternatives?

• What could be the effects of each alternative?

• What do you lose by trying an alternative — and what could you gain?

Writing new rules

Changing the rules you follow means changing your life, which isn’t easy. Neither is it linear — adopting new rules relies on trial and error. Some changes will seem quick and easy, whereas others are more challenging. There is no magic formula: persistence is the key. As Einstein said, insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. As long as you keep trying something different, you have a good chance of success.

Deciding on new rules can be challenging in itself. You have to think about some big questions and consider possibilities you might have been ignoring for your whole life:

• What type of life do you want? What do you want to achieve? How would you like to spend your time?

• Which aspects of your life do you want to change? What are your top priorities?

• What rules would it be most fun to change?

You might find that last question odd or unexpected, but viewing the process of changing your rules as a game and a way to have fun can be very effective. You will be learning the principles while minimising stress. For this reason, it might be a good idea to start writing new rules for areas of your life which are less important to you right now. Instead of tackling the big parts of your life, which are typically career, money and relationships, start with something small — trying out a new hobby or going somewhere different.

If you find a change too challenging, choose the smallest change you can perceive. Read a book you have never considered reading before or cook using a new ingredient. Even small changes reinforce new rules by demonstrating how trying  something different can have positive effects. Each change, no matter how tiny, challenges a rule many of us follow by default: that we should stick to what we know because it’s better or less scary.

Creating a new future involves following a different script

When you live by the rules you have always followed, your life follows the same course. If you want a different future, you need to write a new script and rip up the old one. You don’t need to do it all in one go — just work on it scene by scene. Rewrite your life one rule change at a time.

Your life will require many rewrites. Think of it as a film which is constantly in production — as long as you are alive, you will be adding new scenes, developing characters and changing the plot. One lesson I have learnt is that these rewrites are required more often than you may have anticipated; as you implement changes, you think of new changes to adopt. Don’t stick to a script which isn’t serving you as well as it could be, no matter how recently you rewrote it. Keep rewriting!

How Much of Your Identity is Determined by Your Mental Health?

I don’t think mental illness should ever be your whole identity, but I have to acknowledge that it’s part of my identity. My experiences have contributed to who I am — and many of those experiences were affected or created by my mental health problems. But how much of my identity is determined by my mental health?

And, more to the point, how comfortable am I with the extent to which my identity is determined by my mental health?

The weirdest thing about these considerations is that, against common assumptions, my mental health problems have had some extremely positive effects:

• Hitting rock bottom has made me determined to follow my dreams, especially my goal of earning a living through writing.

• I have more empathy — which means I want to help break down the stigma surrounding mental illness to help others.

• Confronting my mental health problems forced me to build my self-esteem, which means I no longer let anyone treat me like shit.

• I value integrity, creativity and emotional honesty over the things a lot of other people seem to value, like money and status.

• The stagnancy of mental illness persuaded me to embrace change, which has led to me getting my degrees and travelling to places I never thought I’d see.

But, like physical illnesses, mental illnesses leave scars.

I think I will always have the insecurites which are enmeshed in my mental health problems. My anxieties resurface when I least expect them. I know how bad things can get: I know the despair of believing life is not worth living. These are aspects of mental illness that I would not wish on anyone.

So how can I accept these negative aspects of mental illness as part of my identity?

The short answer is because I have no choice. In order to embrace what I have learnt from my mental health problems, I must embrace the negative effects as well as the positive. The difference is, I try to give far more attention to the positive effects.

That is true of everything in life. Every relationship in your life has negative and positive aspects. Every experience you have, ditto. You don’t choose to become mentally ill, but you can choose to learn from your experience of mental illness (once you have recovered enough) and to cultivate the silver linings.

Ultimately, it is impossible to say how much of your identity is determined by your mental health.

It cannot be measured. Your mental health — whether you have always been mentally healthy or if you have had mental health problems — colours all of the other aspects of your identity. The idea of that would have terrified me a decade ago, but I have learnt that I can use my experiences to my advantage. I can use my knowledge of The Dark Side to drive myelf towards a better future. I can enjoy the authentic friendships in my life and minimise contact with the people who treated me badly when I was at my most vulnerable.

You don’t relinquish power by accepting how your mental health has impacted your identity: you gain power.

You move past the shame and anguish which other people project onto you and realise that mental illness is not a personality flaw or a punishment you have brought upon yourself. It is just an illness. It is bound to affect all aspects of your life, just as a serious, long-term physical condition is bound to impact your life.

Am I a different person because I have mental health problems? Yes and no. Mental illness has made me learn more about myself. It has brought different aspects of my personality to the fore. It has encouraged me to explore who I am.

I used to be preoccupied with pleasing other people. I hid my imagination and my intelligence because some people had a problem with them. I paid attention to criticism and ignored praise. I lost confidence and didn’t try new things.

I could have soent my whole life like that, working in a job I didn’t like and wasting my time on unimportant things, but experiencing mental illness led to a change of direction. It changed my priorities. It made me discover my own values.

More than anything, my mental health issues have helped me become the person I always was.

Don’t Be Caged by Your Past

Sometimes the past holds you back in obvious ways: you convince yourself there is no point in trying something, whether that’s a dance class or an university course, because you have failed in the past. Or you convince yourself that you can’t achieve a “big” goal because you have never achieved a big goal before — regardless of whether you have attempted to achieve one. However, sometimes you can find yourself held back by tiny instances from your past: comments you have all but forgotten, experiences which you have never questioned because they seem inconsequential, labels given to you by people who didn’t know you well enough to make those judgments.

I have been thinking about this more as I develop my embryonic freelance career. When I was at school, I did 3 days of work experience at a local newspaper’s offices. In the feedback given by the editor, he said “Hayley doesn’t have enough confidence to be a journalist.” I took this to heart and never considered journalism — or any kind of nonfiction writing — as a career for over a decade.

I had very little self-esteem as a teenager, so I readily believed any criticism I received — regardless of its accuracy — but now I value myself more, I can look back and reassess. The first thing that stands out is that the editor’s comment seems to view confidence in black and white terms: it is something you have or you don’t have. There is no suggestion that I could gain more confidence. The implication is that confidence is innate and if you don’t have it, you will never have it. This is obviously bullshit.

Confidence is not discrete. It is fluid and ever-changing. You can have utmost confidence in some areas of your life and none in other areas. You can develop confidence as a skill. You can also learn how to fake confidence, which is just as effective as being confident. Your confidence fluctuates throughout your life and teenagers are notoriously insecure and neurotic. None of us deserves to be judged on our confidence levels during such a turbulent time.

Another thing which stands out is how little attention was paid to my other skills by the newspaper editor. Part of the reason for this is that I didn’t see a lot of the editor; he was absent on the third day of my work experience and I spent most of my time with a reporter. I was also bound to be more nervous on the first couple of days, since I was a 14 year old girl thrust into an unfamiliar environment full of strangers. Neither did I have much opportunity to show off my skills, particularly the ones which were more accomplished, like writing, proofreading and photography.

I am horrified by how much weight I put on a comment made by someone who didn’t know me and only saw a tiny fraction of my skillset. Note that “I” because it’s what I find most painful: I was the one who placed undue importance on a single comment. I was the one who accepted the editor’s opinion as fact. I was the one who decided to quit, instead of proving that I could become more confident.

When you start to reassess your past, you will find many paths that you have cut off for various, unimportant, reasons. It can be painful to face the decisions you have made, but it is vital to accept them. Be kind to yourself — you did the best you could in your situation. Yes, you have made plenty of mistakes, but that doesn’t make you an inferior person. It makes you human.

Reassessing the past allows you to move on. You need to realise that you are not bound by your past decisions. You are influenced by the past, for sure, but you don’t need to be restricted by your past. You are not the same person who made those past decisions. I am no longer a scared 14 year old girl who believes she is inferior to everyone else and incapable of gaining confidence. However, I have learnt from that girl’s experiences and I no longer allow people to label me.

To break free of your past, you need to accept responsibility for it. You also need to accept responsibility for your present and future. This doesn’t mean that all your problems are your fault: it means that you acknowedge the power you have to respond to your problems in any way you choose. After all, every cage has a door.

Why You Should Be Selfish

A lot of us fall into the martyr trap. We think we don’t deserve as much as other people – time, money, social contact, love, respect, effort… When your self-esteem is low, it’s difficult to ask for what you need, let alone what you want, because you assume you are not worth it and everyone would say no anyway. Why bother asking when we know the answer? It’s not worth the time and effort.

Sometimes our martyrdom can become a security blanket and an excuse – if we never access everything we could, we don’t have the resources we need so we don’t have to try to achieve our goals. When we don’t reach our potential, we can blame our circumstances. Our failure isn’t “real” because we didn’t have the advantages enjoyed by other people. We convince ourselves we are just not the type of people who succeed. It’s easier than challenging this assumption.

Stop! Asking for what you need is not “bad”. Asking for what you want isn’t a bad thing either – especially when getting what you want allows you to contribute to other people’s lives.

Think about it on a basic level: if you are very poor and struggle to support your family, you might go without food so that they can eat more – but what if you eat so little that you cannot care for your family? You might become too weak to work, which means your family will starve. You might be so weak that you cannot prepare meals or feed your children if they are too young to feed themselves. By giving up your share of food, you are actually being more “selfish” because you leave yourself less able to meet your family’s needs.

The same applies to other basic needs, like sleep, and activities that are not essential to survival but are important to living a happy life, like contact with friends. When you fulfil your own needs, you are in a better position to fulfil other people’s needs. You are stronger, more energetic and resourceful. You can help others – without jeopardising your own health and happiness.

Let’s examine this further: what about activities which contribute to your own life, but leave you with less time/money/energy/whatever for your family and friends? The benefits are less obvious, but they still exist. Who do you think makes a better parent, partner, friend, neighbour, etc. – someone who makes time to follow their own interests because it gives them more satisfaction, or somebody who does nothing for themselves and resents it more as the years pass? Which person is more likely to motivate the people around them to achieve their own goals? Who is happier?

The happier and more satisfied you are with your life, the higher your ability to affect other people’s lives in positive ways. It can be hard to appreciate this in the short term, especially when working towards your goals isn’t going according to plan, but it’s vital to recognise this truth. Sure, you will have to make short term sacrifices, but it’s worth it in the long term. Even if you fail in your endeavours, you are setting a wonderful example to everyone around you. You are chasing your dreams, which is inspiring and encouraging.

So be selfish. Set aside time to satisfy your needs and work towards your goals. It will make you a better parent, a better child, a better friend – and it will make you a lot easier to live with!

Why I love My Self-Harm Scars

***TRIGGER WARNING*** This post discusses self-harm. It doesn’t go into detail, but please don’t read if you think it could negatively affect you and/or trigger you to self-harm.

I self-harmed on and off (but mainly on) for over 15 years. I tended to cut my forearms, so it was easy to hide the wounds and scars under long sleeves. It got a bit awkward when I was sweating in woollen jumpers on hot summer days, but I pretended I felt the cold. Besides, I already avoided short sleeves in order to hide the large birthmark on my right arm so I didn’t arouse too much suspicion. Some people claim that self-harm is all about seeking attention but in my experience, people who self-harm are ashamed and go to great lengths to hide the evidence.

It took me a long time to stop being ashamed. Sure, the scars aren’t attractive and hiding them might avoid intrusive questions, but I hid my scars because I was ashamed of having self-harmed, because I was ashamed of having mental health problems and because I was ashamed of who I was. Now I’m proud to have reached a stage in my recovery where I can wear T-shirts on a sunny day without dreading what other people might say. I’m proud of overcoming my problems and becoming a self-proclaimed spokesperson for people who have experienced mental illness. If anyone asks about my scars, I don’t lie or make excuses: I say they were caused by self-harm during bad episodes of depression and anxiety.

If people ask further questions, I’m happy to explain that cutting myself used to bring me relief from the intense anger, stress and numbness I felt. In fact, once you get me started on the topic, it’s difficult to get me to stop! I like to think that speaking out helps people who currently self-harm and those who have self-harmed in the past. Raising awareness is always helpful as the more visibility a mental health problem or symptom of mental illness has, the more it can help sufferers to feel less isolated. Sometimes, it can have a direct impact. I have spoken about self-harm to friends of other self-harmers and to friends of my own who have self-harmed. I hope they benefitted from the increased understanding brought by sharing my experience, even if it had no other effect.

But do you know what? Very few people mention my scars. I suppose they grow less visible as time passes and they fade, but I also think there is more awareness of self-harm. People are less likely to grab someone’s arm and shout ‘oh my god, what happened to you?’ and are more likely to react with sympathy than disgust when they find out that someone has self-harmed. I love my scars because they are a symbol of my strength. I got through some very difficult times – and I’m not entirely sure how I survived some of those times – which is something I should celebrate. I think we should also celebrate my scars being less remarkable, since it suggests that fewer people want to shame or embarrass those who self-harm.

I want to encourage everyone to love their scars, but I understand why a lot of people want to keep them hidden. I hope that by speaking out, there will be no reason to hide self-harm scars (or any other scars, for that matter) in the future. All scars are proof that you have overcome trauma and if you have scars, you should be proud of how your body and mind have recovered from trauma – regardless of whether the recovery is total or, as in my case, continuing.

Mental Illness is Not a Weakness

I repeat: mental illness is NOT a weakness. It sounds obvious, right? Yet I believed the opposite for years. I thought having a mental illness meant that I was weak and somehow less of a person than everybody else. I thought I had to work twice as hard as everyone else to counteract this weakness. Of course, putting such pressure on myself made the mental illness worse. It took me a decade to realise that coping with mental health problems has made me stronger.

Mental illness itself isn’t a strength any more than it is a weakness: it is a condition, a disease, not a character trait. However, dealing with the effects of mental illness has forced me to develop a number of desirable skills and character traits. For example, I had to learn to speak up for myself because the alternative was to be abused or neglected. I have become more compassionate because I have been in desperate situations and know how painful it is to be ignored, belittled, insulted, derided or criticised when you are in such a wretched state. I have also learnt to laugh at many aspects of mental illness, because the only other option would give it too much control over my current and future life.

Although it is illegal to discriminate, many employers view people with experience of mental illness as weak. When considering potential employees, they consider mental illness a drawback. In fact, I would argue that the opposite is true. When you have battled mental illness – and often continue to battle the symptoms on a daily basis – other challenges pale in comparison. You are persistent and resilient. You have had to become an expert at problem solving. I’d say those are some bloody good traits to have in an employee.

But how can we expect employers’ attitudes to change unless we lead the way? We must stop thinking of mental illness as a weakness. To do so gives it too much power and detracts from our own power and strengths. What has your experience of mental illness taught you? What skills have you been forced to develop as a result of mental illness? Which parts of your personality have been strengthened? How has mental illness affected your values? How has it changed how you treat others? Has it affected the decisions you have made in your life?

See also: The Merits of Mental Illness

Choose a Fresh Page – Instead of Wishing for a Fresh Start

Everyone sometimes wishes they could start again. I don’t know if it happens more frequently for those of us with mental health problems; I just know it’s easy to blame mental illness for all of the problems in our lives. I have this fantasy where I pack a rucksack, go somewhere far away and start my life over. I will never act on it, because I can’t abandon my dog or desert my parents and friends, but it has a strong appeal.

Yet I know it’s bullshit. I can’t escape myself or my past actions. Any new life I create has to be built on the foundation of what has gone before – and that’s a good thing. Regardless of our experiences (and I refuse to use this blog as an excuse to throw myself pity parties), we have all gained something from our past. Often it’s the knowledge gained as a result of making mistakes. It could be resilience from overcoming obstacles time after time. Or skills we have learnt, whether it’s knowing how to read or being able to play the piano. You might have gained a really good friend or a partner. Or just a kickass pair of shoes. We have all gained something, even if what we have gained seems small and insignificant.

Which is why we should stop wishing we could abandon our past and make a fresh start. Instead, let’s choose a fresh page, a new chapter. Decide what changes you would like to make and create a plan. Standard advice is to start small, but who says you have to? In my experience, bigger changes can be easier because the reward is more of an incentive and helps you face your fears. However you decide to transform your life, take action as soon as you can.

Take action and keep taking action. Fears and anxieties may never go away, but turning your attention elsewhere forces them into the background and when you take actions related to your fears and anxieties, they are reduced. Again, I’m not claiming that it’s easy to face your fears and take action, but remember: Fear and anxiety can only be overcome with action.

Any action counts. One of my successes in overcoming my anxiety this year was taking my dog for a walk on my own. Not only does this action seem tiny to other people, especially as I live in a rural area so going for a walk doesn’t involve negotiating crowds of people, but it’s something I used to do all the time. However, I hadn’t gone for a walk on my own for years. I don’t care what anyone else thinks – the first time I did it, I was elated and for good reason. Your actions may be ‘bigger’ or ‘smaller’ in the eyes of other people, but none of that matters. The only thing that matters is that you take action, any action.

So start a fresh page and do something a little different. Big or small, let me know about it – email hayley@hayleynjones.com or leave a comment below.

The Merits of Mental Illness

Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t wish mental illness on my worst enemy – but experiencing it has given me a few advantages. Hitting rock bottom has made me less afraid of challenging the norm. It has left me more determined to follow my dreams. It forced me to face up to my issues (with the help of a year of drama therapy) and accept that I am a good person with a lot to offer.

Before, I used to believe the bullies who told me I wasn’t good enough. People who picked on me just to make themselves feel better. So-called friends who undermined my confidence and made me feel stupid, disgusting and ashamed. Looking back, do you know what I notice? All of these people lived mediocre lives. They followed the ‘rules’ about fitting in and never stepping out of line. They belittled anyone who tried to do better, anyone who had bigger goals, because it was easier than challenging their own view of the world.

I now realise that most of the people who were horrible to me must have been miserable. I don’t know why they took it out on me – I turned inward and blamed myself for my misery. Maybe they were jealous of dreamers with ambition. Perhaps they were just nasty and spiteful. My experience of mental illness has taught me to ignore these people and to pity them. It has also demonstrated that I can hurt myself worse than anybody else can: at the worst points of my depression, I hated myself and punished myself for being someone I hated. Getting past that has made me feel all but invincible!

The other merits of mental illness are less dramatic, but almost as influential. Being unable to concentrate enough to read when I was depressed meant I watched a lot of DVDs, which reminded me of how much I love film and led to a BA in Film Studies. Being too anxious to leave the house for months at a time taught me who my friends were (i.e. those who made the effort to keep in touch) and made me value them more than ever before. Living at home when I went to university, because I needed the support of my family, enabled me to buy my own car and learn to drive. I loved that car, even though it was a bit of an old banger and, after a few years, had a leak that covered the floor with an inch of water every time it rained…

The point is, you can find silver linings in your darkest moments, as long as you look hard enough. You might be sceptical – I know I would have been if I’d read a post like this eight or nine years ago – but I promise it’s true. However, it’s not easy. It’s not so much using the lemons life gives you to make lemonade, but about using the shit life throws at you to fertilise the seeds you sow in order to grow a better future.

Have you identified any advantages in your experience of mental illness or other suffering? Please comment and let us know.


You may also be interested in: Mental Illness is Not a Weakness