Did It!

Last week, I completed a trek through the Lares Valley in Peru, then to Machu Picchu.

It had been a dream of mine for many years – so long that I’m not sure how old I was when I first read or heard about Machu Picchu. It holds a lot of spiritual significance for many people, including myself, though articulating this attraction is difficult. All I know is, since I found out about the “lost” city I have had a strong desire to not only visit it, but to make a sort of pilgrimage.

Machu Picchu

Trekking through the Andes was tougher than I’d anticipated.

I trained as best I could, but there are factors which are difficult to prepare for, like altitude. I got altitude sickness: periods of breathlessness and/or light-headedness, plus a near-constant nausea. I wasn’t affected as badly as some people in my group, but suffering for several days in a row takes its toll.

I was also exhausted, because in addition to the physical challenge, anxiety uses a lot of energy. I’m not used to being around strangers for such a large proportion of the day. I struggle to sleep in unfamiliar places and I wasn’t eating much, because of the nausea. I had hoped the physical exertion would lead to good sleep, but that wasn’t the case – I just got more tired as I kept waking up throughout the night.

Then there was the throat infection… After feeling fine for the acclimatisation trek and the first day of trekking, the second day brought a chesty cough and a general feeling of weakness and lethargy. Our group had its own doctor, Dr Evelyn, who examined me after lunch and pronounced that I had an infection. She prescribed a 3 day course of antibiotics. I felt crap the next day (and needed oxygen over lunch, as my levels had dipped too low) and was still ill as I made my way to Machu Picchu on day 4, adding stomach cramps to my problems.

Oh, yes – I forgot to mention that for the first 3 days of trekking, it was pouring with rain. Our clothes got soaked and we couldn’t dry them properly overnight, because we were camping in tents with no source of heat. It was incredibly uncomfortable.

 

Stubbornness got me through.

Call it grit or determination if you like, but I have been told it’s stubbornness throughout my life and I’m now proud to be stubborn. I said I would reach Machu Picchu or die trying and I meant it – as long as I could put one foot in front of the other and drag myself along on my walking poles, I would. There were times when I thought I would collapse and fail in my endeavours, but my exhausted body was powered by my desire to complete the challenge and somehow kept going.

Every time I hit a milestone, I felt elated. Even when the milestone was a rock three feet away. I couldn’t believe I was still walking, still striving towards my goal.

In many ways, the trek was an extension of my training. I had so much shit thrown at me during my preparation for the challenge that a bit more didn’t make any difference. I knew I could fight through depression, physical illness and anxiety, so I fought through exhaustion, physical illness and anxiety.

 

My fellow trekkers expressed admiration for my determination, believing it would have been easy for me to give up – but giving up was never an option.

Giving up would have been more difficult than continuing, because it would mean letting myself down and admitting that I might never achieve any of my dreams. As long as I was able, I would keep going. If I had broken my leg and was physically unable to carry on, I would have to accept that setback. If I had collapsed, ditto. But as long as I had a choice, I wasn’t going to give up.

I want to show people – especially people with mental health problems – that dreams are worth pursuing. Even when it feels like you will never achieve your goals. While Machu Picchu was my destination, the journey taught me a lot: most importantly, that I’m stronger (mentally and physically) than I believe.

I also learnt how valuable it is to have other people supporting me. While they may have had their doubts, they expressed nothing but encouragement. My fellow trekkers were facing their own challenges, yet they always had the time and energy to reassure me. Likewise, the guides and Dr Evelyn went above and beyond their duty to keep me going. I couldn’t have reached Machu Picchu without every single one of them.

 

Realising my dream was awesome.

I hope fulfilling this long-held goal will be a springboard into a happier life, but it’s pretty amazing in itself. The challenge was unlike any other I have attempted, involving facing many fears and anxieties. When I reached the sun gate at Machu Picchu, following a very difficult morning during which my progress was slow, the main emotion I felt was gratitude.

I was thankful to have had the opportunity to follow my dream, although it took a lot of hard work. I was grateful for the sponsorship which raised over £1000 (if you count gift aid) for Amnesty International, supporting human rights. More than anything, I was glad that I was able to complete the challenge and that all the setbacks and problems I faced were overcome.

The Incas appeared to have a strong, pagan sense of spiritualty. They felt a deep connection to Mother Earth. I share this perspective and trekking through the Peruvian landscape reinforced my beliefs. The Andes offered many points of contrast and comparison to more familiar landscapes. Parts of the trek reminded me of Dartmoor, with its granite rocks and rolling river – yet, when I looked up, I saw mountaintops shrouded in cloud. It reminded me that no matter how alien a place seems, there are points of familiarity, whether in nature or people. Everything is connected.

And I’m connected, too. For the first time in years, I feel like I have a place in the world.

Learning to Be Well

Here are the 5 most important lessons I have learnt in the 6 weeks since I stopped taking antidepressants. I hope they might help people in similar situations, or help their families and friends to understand what they are experiencing.

1. There is no sudden shift from “mentally ill” to “mentally well.”

It’s easy to assume that being well enough to come off medication means you should be able to make other changes quickly and effectively, but you will probably find that life doesn’t look very different when you stop taking antidepressants. There will still be struggles and changes take time.

You can continue to take steps in the right direction, but bear in mind that these need to be steps — not giant leaps. Managing your expectations and being realistic helps you move forward while being compassionate towards yourself. Placing yourself under pressure to transform your life in a short period is neither practical nor fair.

2. A change in mood is not a relapse.

Life is full of ups and downs: we all know this, yet there is a tendency when you have mental health problems to think that normal fluctuations in mood signify a relapse. I have discovered that this intensifies when you stop taking medication. You wonder whether a natural reaction to an event, such as disappointment, is actually a symptom of your mental health deteriorating.

Be prepared for this reaction. Find a more accurate way of monitoring your mental health than listening to the stream of your thoughts. Simply recording your mood and other symptoms at regular times can establish a more objective picture. If you genuinely feel your symptoms are getting worse, discuss it with your doctor and/or other mental health professionals.

3. Self-care is more important when you feel all right.

Self-care is about prevention as well as treatment; I am learning that the former is essential. It’s tricky to keep up self-care routines when you feel well. You start thinking your time might be better spent doing other things. Unfortunately, you might not realise that this is a fallacy until your mental health suffers.

You need to be strict with yourself and do what you need to do every day. This varies from person to person, but for me they include mindfulness meditation, some form of exercise and using a SAD lamp during darker months. Prioritise your mental health, even when it’s tempting to do something else.

4. Don’t let yourself get sidetracked by setbacks.

There will be very difficult times and you will face challenges you didn’t anticipate. For example, I have injured my hip and have been taking a break from exercise, which is difficult because being active is an integral part of my mental health management. The only option is to work around setbacks. In my case, I am focusing on using other strategies to boost my mood until I can return to exercise.

Setbacks are frustrating, for sure, but don’t let them become excuses for not looking after yourself. If you are struggling a lot, remember that there is no shame in taking medication again. Try to show yourself compassion and think of alternative solutions for your problems. Don’t let setbacks dictate your life — figure out how to deal with them and move on.

5. Find other things to focus on.

Rather than obsessing about your health, focus on other things — your relationships, work, passions. Get back to an old interest or try out some new hobbies. Learn something new. Set some goals which aren’t directly related to your mental health.

Activities which induce a sense of flow are ideal — your mind is focused on what you are doing, so there is no opportunity for negative thoughts to arise. Different activities work for different people, but most involve using a skill which challenges you without being so challenging that it causes negative feelings. For me, writing and drawing are most likely to induce flow.

However, activities which don’t necessarily induce flow can also provide a healthy distraction. I love film and literature, for example, so I get lost inside the stories. I also enjoy modern jive, although my skill level is too poor to induce flow — even when I get frustrated at my lack of coordination, rhythm and balance, it’s a break from my usual anxieties. Walking the dog involves little skill, but provides me with a lot of pleasure. Seek pleasures in your life — as long as it’s not self-destructive or damaging to others, these pleasures can help you get more out of life.

I want to manage my mental health so that I can live a full, satisfying life and this can only happen through paying attention to the things with which I want to fill my life. Filling your life with small pleasures can help you through the challenging times. Finding and fuelling your passions can help you learn to be well.

7 Ways to Deal with Anxiety When You Are Getting Out More

Recovering from anxiety enough to get out more and do more activities presents a paradox: you feel more anxious when you are pushing yourself to do something different. It is tempting to give up and go home. However, the only way to move past anxiety is to face it head on. These tips and techniques are for anyone who is trying to push his/her boundaries, but finds anxiety gets in the way.

1. Control your breathing — before you get too anxious

There are lots of breathing exercises which are said to help anxiety, so it’s worth experimenting to find out which work best for you. In my experience, the main criterion for choosing a particular technique is convenience. Most of the breathing exercises I have come across are effective, but what makes a difference for me is finding one I can do easily. I like counting breaths because it’s easy to remember what to do and I can do it without anyone else being able to tell what I’m doing. My favourite is 7-7-11 breathing: in for 7 counts, hold for 7 and exhale for 11.

The key to using breathing exercises effectively is to practice them when you are not feeling anxious. Start doing them when you are at home and feeling comfortable. Practice until it feels natural. Don’t wait to try a breathing exercise until you are freaking out — it’s bound to feel weird when you have never done it before.

When you are accustomed to using a particular technique, you can use it when you feel anxious. The trick is to start controlling your breathing as soon as you begin to feel anxious. Don’t wait until you are heading for a full-on panic attack: do your preferred breathing exercise  when you are a bit jittery and it can prevent your anxiety from escalating.

2. Leave the room

If your anxiety is getting worse despite your best efforts, exit the situation. Go to the toilet or out for some fresh air. Give yourself time and space to calm down.

Most of the time, nobody will notice your absences. If they do and you are uncomfortable with explaining that you feel anxious, just say you needed to cool off or have a bit of a headache. Don’t make a big deal out of it and no one else will.

Actually, a lot of people regularly leave social situations for a break — and for a variety of reasons. Some just need to be alone for a while and away from the noise. It’s fine; it’s normal.

3. Tell people you feel anxious

I have had a lot of success with this trick, partly because it means I no longer worry about whether everyone can tell I’m anxious. How much you say is up to you — I have previously explained that I have bad anxiety, but nowadays I’m more likely to say I feel a bit nervous. It’s up to you. Most people will be understanding (and even those who can’t empathise won’t berate you) and help to put you at ease.

If you are in a situation where elaborating on your anxiety can help, do so. It’s okay to say ‘when I get anxious I hate being fussed over, so don’t be offended if I need to be alone.’ In fact, it pre-empts issues which may arise. I recently had to explain to my gym instructor that when I get out of breath my anxiety can kick in, so when I stop exercising to control my breath I’m not having an asthma attack or anything. The result: I feel less self-conscious when I need to take a break and my gym instructor knows I don’t require medical attention.

4. Take a friend along with you

There is no shame with having someone there for moral support. I do modern jive classes with a friend — something I would probably have never gotten around to by myself. Friends like to help and will be flattered to be asked. Taking  a friend for the first couple of times you go somewhere new can help you to feel confident enough to go alone in future, so it doesn’t need to be a big commitment for them — you can use them as a stepping stone.

Give your friend guidelines before they accompany you — do you expect them to sit beside you all night or would you prefer to spend a proportion of the time building your solo social skills? Would you be pleased or terrified if they introduced you to people? Do you prefer your friend to order from the bar rather than get tongue tied yourself? Often, a close friend will naturally know how you wish to proceed, but discussing guidelines can help you to feel more at ease and lets your friend know if you plan to experiment with pushing your boundaries.

5. Try essential oils — or perfume

Having some lavender oil on a tissue available takes the edge off my anxiety. Apart from its relaxing properties, focusing on a sense which often gets overlooked (unlike sight and hearing) helps me to be more mindful. It forces me to get out of my head, however briefly.

Wearing perfume I love helps me feel more confident and less anxious. I have no idea whether my favourite scents have any relaxation properties and it doesn’t matter: it helps me stay grounded and reminds me of all the great times I have had when wearing that particular perfume. It’s a subtle trick, too — it took me years to realise that my perfume helps me feel less anxious!

6. Focus on other people, not your anxious thoughts

Watch other peoole, listen to them, pay attention. As long as you are doing this, you aren’t worrying about yourself. As soon as you are in a new situation, look for people you can focus on without drawing attention or seeming odd. In classes, this is obviously the teacher/instructor. People dancing, singing karaoke or otherwise performing are great to watch, too. If there are several people between whom you can divide your attention, that’s even better.

Truth is, unless you are extremely creepy and obvious, people tend not to notice being watched. Most of them are too busy chatting, having fun or worrying about themselves. The advanced version of this (which I’m trying to work towards) is to engage in conversation and really listen to other people. Find out three interesting things about each person you meet. Keep a list (mental or literal) of fun questions and conversation starters. Just keep your attention on others, not your mental chatter.

7. Have an escape plan

If all else fails, what will you do? Knowing how you would leave a situation helps you to feel more confident and secure — regardless of whether you put the plan into action. Who could you call to pick you up? Where could you walk to? Have you got money available in case you need to take a taxi?

Even noting the exits can help — when I know the location of the nearest door, I can visualise walking out of the room and it emphasises the fact that I have options. I don’t have to succumb to anxiety, because I know I can walk away if it all gets too much.

Leaving earlier than planned isn’t ideal, but don’t berate yourself if it’s necessary. Tackling anxiety isn’t easy and you deserve credit for getting outside your comfort zone. Leaving an unfamiliar situation isn’t failure — it’s a successful attempt to expand your boundaries and when you keep expanding your boundaries, your anxiety gets easier to control.

 

 

Shaking Things Up

I’m back from my summer blogging break and a lot has changed…

I reached the point where I was fed up with my life not improving quickly enough, so I decided to shake things up. A lot. I started going to modern jive classes, which I enjoy despite being terrible at dancing. I go with a friend, but my confidence has increased enough that I went on my own when she flitted off to Barcelona for a week. A few months ago, that would have been unthinkable!

I also joined my local gym and go to 3 classes a week to build a foundation for my fitness. I prefer to do “normal” cardio either outside (walking, mainly) or at home on my exercise bike or treadmill, so the classes incorporate resistance exercises as well as giving me a blast of cardio. Since I reduced my medication a few weeks ago (after checking with my doctor, of course), I intend to use exercise to help me manage my anxiety and depression symptoms. I have been doing that irregularly for a while, but being in a class helps me to stay motivated and has a beneficial social aspect.

I won’t lie — it hasn’t been easy. But it’s worth it.

I still get anxious when I push myself, but the more I push myself the more I am able to do. I have learnt that I can cope, even if I need to duck outside for a few minutes to calm down or stop working out for a few minutes until my breathing is back under control. Side note: it’s really weird how getting out of breath when exercising can trigger my anxiety, though I’m getting better at controlling my physiological response.

The strangest thing is, people tend not to notice my anxiety. I had to explain to the instructor in one of my exercise classes that I was anxious, not having an asthma or heart attack! When people do notice that I’m anxious, they take it in their stride and view it as normal. After all, few people relish walking into a room full of strangers. Often, I will say I’m nervous or anxious straightaway, so that I’m not obsessing about whether other people are misinterpreting my symptoms.

The biggest changes are invisible

It’s still early days — although my lifestyle has changed a lot, there have been no miraculous transformations. I’m a little fitter, but I still feel incredibly out of shape compared to the others in my exercise classes. I’m more sociable, but I’m not out partying every night.The biggest transformation has been in my mindset: I have made a conscious decision to focus on the positive aspects of my life.

Again, this might sound simple but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. I’m working hard to cultivate optimism and gratitude. There are days when it’s harder than usual; but there are also many days when I feel happier than I have for years. I still have problems, but now I’m more interested in finding solutions than stressing out about them.

Onwards and upwards!

The past couple of months are just the beginning. I plan to continue making changes, transforming my mindset and creating the life I want. I know it won’t be easy and that I have to keep managing my mental health problems for the rest of my life, but what I have experienced so far has convinced me that it’s worth the effort.

 

Pushing Forward

One of the trickiest aspects of emerging from a period of mental illness, even if it’s emerging from an episode of intense symptoms into a less severe manifestation of mental illness, is finding a balance between pushing yourself forward and not pushing too hard. Placing a lot of pressure on yourself is counterproductive, since it increases the chance that you will fail to live up to your (unrealistic) expectations. Facing failure after mustering the courage to push yourself can be devastating — it can feel like the entire world is conspiring to push you back down.

Yet the alternative is worse: to never push forward, to stagnate.

Stagnation is destructive because even if you stay still, the world around you keeps changing. Time marches forward. If you do nothing for long periods of time, the prospect of being proactive becomes scarier because it is so long ago that you last tried. You cling to the relative comfort of stagnation just because it is familiar. You adopt an attitude of “better the devil you know” and convince yourself that setting goals is, at best, pointless.

The danger of becoming enmeshed in this mindset is that if you do find the courage to take a risk and it fails, you consider it proof that you were right all along and having goals is simply setting yourself up for failure. You lose perspective and begin to view failure as inevitable and unique to you. Everyone else succeeds; you fail.

But the truth is that everybody fails.

Life is a succession of failures and triumphs, big and small. Unfortunately, mental health problems tend to magnify the failures and dismiss the successes. Your sense of perspective becomes so warped that you think the supermarket selling out of your favourite snack is a sign that the world is against you, though you would never consider the other items on your shopping list being in stock as proof that the world is supporting your goals. The effect is emphasised when you considered that achieving many goals necessitates numerous failures: if your goal is to bench press 50kg and you currently struggle to lift 10kg, you are going to fail to lift 50kg multiple times until you finally achieve your goal.

I am trying to learn to embrace failure. If you fail a lot, it means you are doing a lot.

I have come across the “fail more” philosophy in several self-help/lifestyle advice books and while I wholeheartedly agree, it is bloody difficult to put into practice. For a start, the failures which form the foundations of people’s success are often hidden — we are told about the achievements, but not the years of hard work and thwarted goals which preceded someone’s success. Even when failures are mentioned, it is usually as a throwaway comment such as “X author had their book rejected by X number of publishers before it sold millions”. Unless you seek out the information because you have a specific interest, you rarely hear about the writers who complete several novels before getting sn agent or the writers whose books are dropped by their publishers because their popularity pales in comparison to the big hitters who top the bestsellers lists. Details of the struggles are disregarded whilst the “cinderella moment” is highlighted.

There are magical moments in life, but they are usually the result of hard work and a relentless willingness to seize opportunities.

There are also struggles after the magical moments. These can make us doubt ourselves just as much as initial failures; we wonder whether we are worthy of the success, whether we can live up to expectations. Again, few people openly discuss the struggles and failures which come after success. Those of us who are doubting ourselves after an achievement are left to assume that everyone else finds it easy.

As I mentioned in my last post, I have recently gotten a new job. It’s ideal in many ways, but I still lack confidence in my abilities. Some of its advantages have been revealed to be a double-edged sword: I can determine my own hours, as long as I meet the monthly minimum in my contract, but how much should I push myself? Not pushing myself enough would mean missing out on money, experience and perhaps opportunities. Pushing myself too far could be detrimental to my mental health, which is improving after a horrible and unanticipated nadir at the end of last year.

Finding balance is a learning curve. Just as I had to push myself forwards to avoid stagnation before I got the job, I need to continue to push myself forward without placing myself under too much pressure. Instead of obsessing over how much to push myself, I need to experiment and discover the balance which is best for me right now. I might feel like running away a lot of the time, but I would rathef face uncertainty than stagnation.

 

Easing into Change

I have been feeling a bit coy every time I mention this, but… I have a job. The first job I’ve had for over a decade. In fact, it’s the ideal job for me at the moment: it’s a writing job (CVs and cover letters), it’s freelance, the hours are flexible and I work from home. If all continues to go well over the next few weeks, I will be able to stop claiming ESA — which is one of my main goals for this year.

Yet, despite all of these advantages, I have been struggling with the transition. I am stressing out a lot because I really want this job to work out; because it would be devastating to fail when I am so close to achieving my goal. Part of me can’t believe that I have been given this opportunity, so I’m expecting it to be taken away at any monent. Getting into a routine has been difficult, too. I tend to either procrastinate or work nonstop for hours on end, neither of which is very healthy.

The whole experience is reminding me of the importance of transitions. Sometimes diving in head first is the right choice, but most transitions — especially if you have mental health problems — require slow, gradual changes. I’m trying to pace myself and build up the number of hours I work with each week, so that by the time I stop claiming benefits I will be earning enough to comfortably cover my expenses. In fact, that is the whole point of doing permitted work — to slowly reintroduce people with long-term illnesses or disabilities to work.

Part of me fights against this idea — I want to dive in and work as hard as I can for as many hours as I can — but I know that doing so would put my health at risk. It’s equivalent to a non-runner trying to run 10 miles every day. Stupid and counterproductive.

Instead, I am learning to be (even more) compassionate towards myself. I will not beat myself up for working too slowly or not working full time hours. I am not being stupid or lazy — I am in training for my future.

Tracking The Maelstrom

When you are coping with mental health problems, it can be difficult to keep track of what helps you and what doesn’t make much difference. You are lost in a maelstrom of symptoms and can’t think clearly. Assessing deterioration and improvement feels impossible.

A simple tool which can help you to decipher your symptoms is tracking your mood. If you have ever had counselling or another type of talking therapy, you may have been given a grid of days and times and asked to make a note of your mood at regular intervals throughout the day. This is helpful, but it can also be a pain in the ass. You forget to fill it in or the grid doesn’t provide enough room for you to record the details you want. You might try it for a couple of weeks to see if you can spot patterns, but it’s hard to integrate it with your life.

The trick to making mood tracking work for you is to adapt the tool. There are apps, for example, which you can use anytime if you download them to your phone. You could also set an alarm on your phone to alert you to track your mood at regular intervals. Or you could go old skool and carry a notebook — this allows you to record as many (or as few) details as you like. You could draw your own grid or just write however you wish.

I use an app called Moodtrack, which is free if you keep your record public and costs 79p if you want them to be private. You can choose your own username, or get the app to generate one for you. If your username doesn’t make it easy for people to identify you, the free app is still pretty anonymous. You simply identify your mood and how positive or negative it is, whenever you want. You can also include an optional comment, so you can record what you are doing and any other possible triggers or reasons for your mood. Sometimes, other users leave supportive comments, but you can obviously ignore them if you don’t wish to interact.

As with most mental health management tools, you should experiment with tracking your mood and discover what works best for you. For instance, some people prefer to note more details than others. My own preferences vary depending on my current mental state: when I feel most depressed I write little or no details, whereas I like to include a lot more information when I’m able to analyse my mood. You should also consider how often you want to record your mood — once an hour might be appropriate if your mood changes frequently and/or you participate in a variety of activities throughout the day, but once every three or four hours is more suitable if your mood is more stable or if you are too busy to update more often. Personally, I find every two to three hours is the most beneficial interval for me.

Mood tracking is so simple that you may question whether it can be helpful, but it helps you to become more aware of the changes in your mood and to live more mindfully. It enables you to spot patterns which are unlikely to emerge when you are lost in the maelstrom of mental illness. If you are sceptical, just give it a try — you might be pleasantly surprised. What have you got to lose? A couple of minutes every few hours. What could you gain? A better understanding of your mental health, which could allow you to manage your symptoms better and possibly recover.

What I Want from 2016

Don’t worry — I won’t bore you by listing all my new year’s resolutions and goals. Many of them are continuations of what I have already been doing, such as trying to live more mindfully, whereas others are about taking a step (or a leap!) forward in my life. As I said in my last post, it’s no use in thinking of the new year as a completely fresh start: your goals need to be built on the foundation of your life as it is now.

That’s why my goals aren’t about transforming my world from January 1st — they need to fit my current lifestyle. Sure, I hope my life will be transformed by my goals, but I believe that permanent change is more likely (and easier) if I change my habits gradually. For me, working towards my goals is about working with my strengths and limitations, not against them.

Like many, many people, one of my main goals for 2016 is to lose weight. Unlike most people, I’m aiming to lose 120lbs. In the past, I have lost weight by restrictive dieting and it has taught me that diets don’t work. Especially not in the long term. So I am changing my lifestyle. This involves changing my eating habits gradually; instead of trying to live on vegetables as soon as the clock struck midnight on 1st January, I have been adjusting what I eat and will continue adjusting until I think my diet is healthy enough.

Another of my goals is to rewrite my novel draft to a good standard. I’m taking this slowly, but aiming to gather pace over the next couple of months. I want to get it done as soon as I can, but I’m not going to beat myself up if my mental health gets in the way. I haven’t set any definite deadlines for this reason: I have to learn to work around my anxiety and depression, instead of getting upset when they prevent me doing things when or how I had intended.

Which brings me to what I want most out of 2016: to get better at managing my mental health and to make progress towards my goals. I want to start 2017 feeling healthier and happier than I do right now. I want to have fun. I want to create art. I want to be stronger. I want to read a lot. I want to watch more films. I want to get outside more. I want to spend time with the people I love. I want to meet new people. I want to save more and stress less. I want to be fitter. I want to be open to opportunities. I want to live.

Oh, and I also want to continue blogging!

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.

Why Everybody Needs to Talk About Mental Health

  1. We all have mental health. Just as we all have a state of physical health, we have a state of mental health. You might be lucky enough to never have to think about it, because your mental health has been good all your life, but you ought to be aware of your mental health.
  2. Anyone can become mentally ill. As with physical health there are various risk factors, but the bottom line is that nobody is immune. If you are aware of your mental health and discuss it regularly with friends and family, you will be better equipped to realise if/when your mental health is in decline and to take action.
  3. You will get more support if you need it — and can give more support to others. When mental health problems are shrouded with secrecy, it’s difficult for sufferers to get help and support. On the other hand, if everybody talks about mental health in the same way physical health gets discussed openly, it is easier for people with mental illness to express their thoughts and emotions. Instead of suffering in silence and feeling alone, we could connect with other people.
  4. There is nothing shameful about mental illness, but not discussing it implies otherwise. Secrets always have connotations of shame. Even if you are not ashamed of your mental health problems, refusing to talk about them creates a wall of silence that makes it harder for everyone to discuss mental illness — even when they want to talk about their experiences. Talking about mental health doesn’t mean you have to expose every symptom and facet of yourself; just as you can talk about your physical health without going into the details, you can talk about mental health in as much (or as little) detail as you wish.
  5. It’s the only way to end the stigma. To stop people with mental health problems feeling ashamednd isolated, we all need to talk about mental health. To stop prejudice against people with mental illness, we all need to talk about it.  To educate people and break down their ignorance about mental health, everybody needs to talk about mental health.