Differently Functioning

The term ‘high functioning’ is used to describe people with mental health issues (and other conditions) who appear or behave in a way which is ‘normal.’ This often means holding down a full time job, having stable relationships and being able to carry out mundane tasks, like cooking, shopping, using the phone, travelling on public transport, etc. It can be a useful term, for example when explaining how people whose lives appear successful can be suffering from a mental illness, but it’s very problematic. Especially for those of us who aren’t ‘low functioning’ but can’t be described as ‘high functioning’ and/or whose mental health problems vary over time.

I propose using ‘differently functioning’ to acknowledge the full spectrum of people who experience mental health issues. It’s a more flexible term which avoids many of the assumptions evoked by using evaluative language to define people’s experiences of mental health. It identifies the need to accommodate difference without creating discrete categories which are imposed on people with mental health problems.

 

‘High functioning’ implies a binary position – and a hierarchy.

When people use the term ‘high functioning’, it is usually in contrast to ‘low functioning’ individuals. They don’t talk about the people who fall between these two definitions. This means that people with mental health problems who don’t meet the criteria for either definition are ignored or shoved into whichever category someone else decides is the best fit. Their specific needs are not considered.

Describing individuals as high/low functioning also suggests that their value as a person is either high or low. The implication is that ‘high functioning’ people contribute to society, whereas ‘low functioning’ people are a burden on society. You might not intend to create these assumptions when you use the terms, but that’s the effect of the language you are using.

 

‘High/low functioning’ are terms which invite judgement.

There are expectations built into the descriptions: ‘high functioning’ people should be able to cope with anything, whereas ‘low functioning’ people can’t be expected to cope with anything. You are either under pressure to meet society’s definition of ‘normal’ (which is variable in itself) or devalued as ‘subnormal’. You are judged by the terms themselves, then you are judged if you fail to meet the expectations evoked by these terms.

Unfortunately, the UK benefits system is based on these terms under different guises: ‘fit for work’ and ‘not fit for work.’ Little to no consideration is given to people who can cope with some types of work but not others, or people whose ability to cope varies. This exposes vulnerable people to judgement from the general public: if you are declared ‘not fit for work’ and someone sees you on a rare good day, enjoying a meal out with friends, you are labelled a scrounger. Even if you have to ask your friends to go to the bar on your behalf, because anxiety prevents you from speaking to the bartender.

These definitions and the associated judgements help nobody. They perpetuate ignorance of mental health issues and prevent people from seeking help and support.

I have been on both sides at various times in my life and neither is easy. When I was ‘low functioning’ I felt like a lost cause and any improvement made me feel like a fraud, because it deviated from people’s perceptions. I felt guilty for having a good day. When I was ‘high functioning’ I felt like I constantly needed to prove myself and anything less than perfection was a failure. I felt guilty for not being able to do things – anything, even things most people find difficult – and was crumbling below the surface.

Describing people as ‘high/low functioning’ in a medical context may be useful, but it’s still limiting. Using these descriptions in daily life is damaging.

 

‘High/low functioning’ are fixed terms.

Defining people as ‘high/low functioning’ implies permanence. There is no obvious route from one category to the other – particularly from the undesirable (low functioning) to the supposedly desirable (high functioning). It takes away hope for people whose mental health prevents them from functioning ‘normally’ – and hope is a rare commodity for many people who have mental health issues – while failing to provide a safety net for ‘high functioning’ people, because if they fail to meet expectations (their own and/or other people’s) they are condemned to the ‘low functioning’ category, since there are no other options available.

You are either consigned to a category which (according to some people) defines you for the rest of your life, or your individual requirements are permanently ignored as people try to shoehorn you into a category.

 

‘Differently functioning’ offers an alternative, more realistic and flexible viewpoint.

Mental health is variable – regardless of whether you have been diagnosed with a mental illness. Everyone has good days, bad days and days which are inbetween. This is often exacerbated when you have mental health problems, as your symptoms can vary a lot and these symptoms affect other aspects of your life – and other symptoms. This means your ability to perform certain tasks can vary a lot.

To complicate matters, your ability to cope with different activities may vary over different periods of time, ranging from years to hours. You can fluctuate between the categories of ‘high functioning’ and ‘low functioning’ on a short-term and/or long-term basis.

For example, I couldn’t take my dog for a walk on my own for over a decade, but now I can – except when my anxiety is worse than usual. Before March last year, I couldn’t go for a walk alone even on good days. Just to emphasise the illogical nature of mental illness, I could walk on my own in specific circumstances during that time, such as when going to lectures at university. Other times, I couldn’t leave the house – alone or with other people.

People who haven’t experienced mental health problems find this difficult to understand (and so do I, sometimes!), because they are stuck in a black-and-white mindset which dictates that if a person is ‘well’ they can do anything, while if they are ‘ill’ they can do nothing. Even when paying lip service to the notion that everyone has good and bad days, some people don’t understand how dramatically one’s abilities and coping mechanisms can vary. They can’t see why people with mental health problems can’t force themselves to undertake these activities all the time.

By using the term ‘differently functioning’, we can acknowledge the variable nature of mental illness. This provides a starting point for enabling people to cope with mental health problems – whether they are the one experiencing mental health issues or a caregiver, partner, friend, employer, teacher, etc. of someone with mental health problems.

 

‘Differently functioning’ is an inclusive term and values people for their abilities.

It’s genuinely descriptive, rather than judgemental. There are no implied expectations. You don’t feel as though your value as a person is being evaluated when people use the term and you aren’t forced into a category which doesn’t reflect your reality. People with mental health problems can feel ostracised if we don’t measure up to what society considers ‘normal’, which is emphasised when people insist on defining others as high/low functioning. In contrast, everyone is ‘differently functioning’, but these differences often need more consideration when someone has a mental health issue.

The specific differences may not make sense to a lot of people. For instance, anxiety often prevents me from using public transport and driving – but I find driving easier. I can drive at a level of anxiety which would stop me from getting on a train. Most people find this difficult to understand, because driving is more dangerous and involves a higher level of skill and responsibility than being a train passenger. However, I experience social anxiety as well as general anxiety, which makes interacting with people – especially strangers – very difficult. I’d much rather drive than interact with people I don’t know.

My example may seem arbitrary, but it underlines the fact that being differently functional often means you can do some tasks which people consider hard, but are unable to perform some tasks which people think are easy. For instance, I can write essays well, but can’t make phone calls most of the time. In fact, I would rather write ten essays than make one phone call! I’m aware of how ridiculous this sounds, but it’s the way it is – for me.

Your abilities may also depend on other factors, such as location and who else is involved. For example, I’m now able to go to the hairdresser on my own (which wasn’t the case a few years ago), but I can only go to my regular salon and it’s much easier if the hairdresser is one who has cut my hair before. I can do far more when accompanied by my mum than I can alone, or even with a friend, such as talk to shop assistants and go to gym classes. Yet all of this is variable – I went to a gym class on my own when my mum was on holiday, though it was much harder and less enjoyable, but I can’t rely on my anxiety to be low enough for me to go alone every week.

Thinking of yourself and other people as differently functioning is more positive than using the high/low dichotomy. It places an emphasis on what you can do, rather than what you are currently unable to do.

 

Thinking in terms of ‘differently functioning’ opens up more possibilities.

Along with emphasising your abilities, thinking of yourself as ‘differently functioning’ encourages a growth mindset which highlights the importance of developing your skills. Improvement is possible. You start to value yourself and what you can do. Instead of fostering fear and despair, it creates hope.

I started to think of myself as ‘differently functioning’ last year. I was fed up with feeling stuck between ‘high functioning’ and ‘low functioning’ because that is how our society views people with mental illness. I’m not well enough to do everything which most people take for granted, but neither am I ill enough to do nothing and be satisfied. I have to find a way to negotiate life to the best of my abilities – especially when those abilities fluctuate.

Thinking of myself as differently functioning has helped me to focus on my strengths, rather than berating myself for not being able to do simple tasks, like talking on the phone and shopping alone. I’m pushing myself to improve my skills and gain confidence. I’m managing my mental health better. Perhaps I will meet the criteria for people to consider me ‘high functioning’ one day, but it doesn’t matter to me – as long as I know I’m doing my best, working hard to achieve my goals and contributing to society.

 

‘High functioning’ is not a good goal.

The trouble is, ‘high functioning’ gets presented to people with mental health problems as a goal. Even when people who use the term are trying to make a valid point, such as how mental illness makes it difficult to cope even when your life looks great from the outside, this is the subtext: lots of people with mental health problems can work, get married, have kids, go on holiday, buy homes, etc. so if your mental health has prevented you from doing any (or all) of these things, you are a failure. You can’t blame your mental health, so it must be your own fault.

Mental illness is not a homogenous experience and adhering to a high/low functioning dichotomy ignores both the range and intensity of symptoms. It also ignores the complexity of individual situations. Some people have highly supportive employers, for example, who allow them to work flexibly and take time off when needed without sending them on a guilt trip when they return to work. Some people have supportive families who help them cope. Some people have the security of large financial resources. Some people have all of these advantages and more; others have none. When being ‘high functioning’ is presented as a goal, allowances are not made for people who lack these resources and the implication is the same – if you don’t reach this goal, it’s your own fault.

 

‘Differently functioning’ abandons the myth of the ultimate goal.

I advocate thinking in terms of ‘differently functioning’ because there is no ultimate goal: people are free to choose their own goals and don’t have to worry about not measuring up to the ideal.

Except the high functioning ideal isn’t necessarily an ideal. ‘High functioning’ often refers to people who are struggling with mental illness while maintaining a façade, rather than managing their mental health and achieving their goals. They may be considered successful, but they are neither happy nor healthy. This has more disturbing implications when it’s portrayed as an ideal: it doesn’t matter if you are suffering, as long as you bear the hallmarks of success.

I followed this philosophy for a long time. I thought having a job was more important than being healthy, so I stayed in jobs which damaged my mental health. I believed exam results were more important than being happy, so I focused on studying as I grew more miserable. My coping mechanisms were destructive: self-harm, alternately bingeing and starving myself, cutting myself off from friends.

Nowadays, I’m trying to follow a different philosophy: managing my mental health and achieving my goals without sacrificing one for the other. I may never be able to work in a conventional full time job, but I hope I can build a successful career through unconventional work. Perhaps I will struggle with my mental health all my life, but I’m determined to cope as well as I can and pursue my interests whenever I can.

I’m functioning in a different way to ‘normal’ people, but I’m still functioning.

On/Off Course

The most frustrating thing about trying to achieve goals, especially when you have mental health problems, is the inevitable drifting off course. Life throws obstacles in your path and you have to work your way around them or wait until you can pass. When this happens, it’s difficult to know whether you are still heading in the right direction.

 

Off course

It’s easy to lose sight of the path.

When you are working towards long-term goals, the single steps in between now and reaching your goal seem insignificant. You know, on a logical level, that every step is important, but they don’t feel important when you are taking them. You feel like you’re constantly walking and getting nowhere.

It’s easier to stop walking.

This isn’t always a conscious decision: your path can get so littered with obstacles and distractions that you don’t know which way to turn. You start wondering whether all of these challenges mean you’re not meant to follow this path, that you should choose a different goal.

 

You need to look for compasses.

Just as you can look to the sun and landmarks to check your position when hiking, you need to look for signs you are on the right path when working towards your goal. Instead of using an actual compass, you have to use symbolic compasses like your values and passions to check your direction.

I know that sounds a little mystical and perhaps a bit woo-woo, but I refuse to apologise for having a hippie streak!

Knowing your compasses helps a lot. There are questionnaires you can take to determine your core values, but in my experience most people are aware of what they prioritise (or would like to prioritise) in their lives. My personal values include creativity and self-expression, having a strong sense of social responsibility and being compassionate. Manifestations of these core values have been present throughout my life, from writing stories based heavily on Enid Blyton books as a child and taking part in sponsored walks, to writing, blogging and volunteering for a mental health charity today.

Look at your own life and consider what has brought you the most happiness, satisfaction and meaning.

 

When you have found your compasses, you need to check them.

I find this difficult. I forget to check my compasses on a daily basis, allowing myself to get distracted by whatever life throws at me and being reactive instead of proactive. One of the ways counselling is helping me at the moment is by giving me the opportunity to stand back and check my compasses, reassuring me that I’m on the right path and travelling in the right direction.

I think I’m getting better though — I recognise the simple activities which calm me, bring me pleasure and allow me to take stock. Meditation, yoga, walking, running and journaling all fall into this category. I also know which activities bring the most value to my life, such as volunteering and blogging about mental health. The more I focus on these activities, the happier (and more confident) I feel about my life and my goals.

There are no maps for living (unless you create your own, but that’s a different blog post!), but there are compasses — we all have them and can use them to plot our course. What are your compasses?

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!

Be Like a Bluebell

I took this photo because this is the first bluebell I’ve seen this year (a couple of weeks ago – I’ve since seen loads more). I thought I might use it in a blog post about hope or my relief that spring is easing my symptoms a little, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised how perfectly the picture demonstrates something else…

Bluebell
Bluebells are experts at showcasing themselves.

The contrast between their purple flowers (let’s face it – they are more purple than blue!) and green leaves makes them stand out. In the case of this particular bluebell, the surrounding plants are green and it stands out all the more. The colours complement each other and the spread of foliage acts as a backdrop. While a carpet of bluebells is spectacular, one alone can be stunning.

Bluebells also enhance each other, instead of competing, which is why the carpet effect is so spectacular. Being surrounded by other bluebells doesn’t detract from the beauty of a single one, but their beauty is multiplied through togetherness.

I think humans can learn a lot from bluebells.

We need to find ways to showcase ourselves and each other, working together instead of buying into a zero-sum philosophy which dictates that there must be winners and losers. A lot can be gained from a simple change in perspective: instead of criticising everyone and pointing out flaws, what if we actively look for things to praise?

Human brains love problem solving. As soon as you make a statement, your brain looks for evidence to support that statement. If you think “I am unlucky”, you can find dozens of examples as evidence. Likewise, if you think “I am lucky”, you will find dozens of examples. Neither is “true” because luck is a matter of perspective. This is why breaking out of negative thinking patterns is so difficult – your brain follows the well-trodden path and seeks evidence to convince you it’s the only path.

Taking a different approach doesn’t come easily, but it’s worth the effort. Seeking positives is empowering – both of yourself and others. When you start focusing on people’s strengths, including your own, opportunities come into view.

I have been trying to focus on my strengths recently, but it’s difficult. Not because I have none (though I certainly believe this at times, that’s just a symptom of my mental illness), but because our society seems so determined to knock people down. There is a constant stream of negativity from the media, social media, the general public, etc.

An article in the current issue of Mslexia, a writing magazine I otherwise love, the lead feature is about the financial difficulties writers face, especially in old age. It brings out the old “don’t give up the day job” advice, which is great for people without mental health problems who have a day job, but demoralising for those of us who are unable to work in the jobs most readily available, which all seem to involve a high degree of interaction with the public (not great for people with social anxiety). While the article goes on to explore a few solutions, I think it would have been much more interesting (and relevant) if it had taken a different approach: how can writers use their skills to earn a living and provide for their future?

I have discovered something interesting from my reading and talking to people: those who advise me to focus on my strengths and what I enjoy are happier and more successful.

I should clarify that I mean happy and successful according to their own terms. Many of us, believe it or not, don’t aspire to be millionaires. Sure, it would be nice, but money just isn’t a priority. If I could earn a living doing the work I love (which doesn’t mean loving every minute or every aspect of it, but loving it overall), I would be satisfied. I don’t need expensive holidays and designer shoes to make me happy (though both are appreciated!); I want to write and help people with mental health problems. Meanwhile, I’m trying to fight through the pessimism and find ways to help me achieve what I want.

I’m trying to focus my attention on what is helpful, instead of being demoralised by negative diatribes which assume everyone is physically and mentally capable of following the conventional path. I keep reminding myself to be like a bluebell, to show myself to my best advantage.

It’s also worth noting that while bluebells showcase themselves, they are not showy. They are modest flowers and all the more beautiful because of it. They don’t need to showboat, boast and seek attention. They quietly do their own thing and let their beauty shine for those who take the time to look. I think we can all learn a lot from bluebells.

The Therapeutic Side of Writing Fiction

I’m always a little wary when someone asks me if I write as a form of therapy. They usually expect a yes or no, but the answer is complex…

First of all, I don’t want to give the impression that writing is a substitute for talking therapies or other kinds of mental health treatments. While using any kind of art as therapy can be helpful, I think it’s appropriate as a complementary strategy rather than a complete treatment for mental illness in itself. (Sidebar: in my experience, there is no such thing as a complete treatment, but medication and talking therapies come closest, in my opinion).

Secondly, I write for readers. If I write something just for me, it stays in my journal or folder. If I submit stories, I want other people to read and enjoy them. Regardless of whether a particular story has been therapeutic for me to write, the audience is one of my top considerations. This consideration always affects the story and may prevent it from being as therapeutic as it would be were the readers not taken into account.

With those caveats in mind, my answer is yes. I do write as a form of therapy, but there are also many other reasons why I write.

 

Not all writing is equally therapeutic.

To make things a little less complicated, I’m solely talking about writing fiction and specifically short stories, since they constitute the main body of my work to date. However, the therapeutic value of any given story varies a lot: many of my stories have had no therapeutic value, whereas some have been very helpful as therapy.

Can you tell the difference? I have no idea. I like to think I write to a high standard regardless of whether a story has been therapeutic to write, but that might not be the case! Do the more therapeutic stories have more emotional impact? Again, I can’t tell. I hope all my stories have some emotional impact, though the emotional effects depend on the individual story.

 

The raw material, whether it is inspired by life or not, is transformed.

When people hear “therapeutic” in regards to writing, they automatically think of memoir or autobiographical fiction. They assume that in order to be therapeutic, the story needs to bear a strong resemblance to the writer’s lived experience. Often, the opposite is true.

Amanda Palmer, in her excellent book The Art of Asking, talks about the transformation of life experience into art in terms of putting raw material into a blender. She typically uses a low blender setting when songwriting, such as level 3 on a scale of 1-10. In contrast, her husband (the author Neil Gaiman) uses a very high blender setting — often level 10.

I love this analogy. It’s a simple but effective way of demonstrating how two pieces of art can be equally as personal, but very different in terms of recognising the raw material from the finished work.

For me, the more therapeutic the story, the higher my blender setting. I know what raw material has gone into the story, but other people (even those who know me best) would find it all but impossible to tell.

 

The transformation of raw material is the most cathartic aspect of writing.

While pouring out my emotions in my journal can help me feel a little better, it’s the process of transformation that I find most therapeutic. I suppose it correlates with talking therapy: if you recount your experience to a therapist it usually provides a sense of relief, but venting your feelings is just the first step. The most useful part of therapy is questioning and evaluating. There is more value in learning to reframe your experiences and think about them in different ways. Ditto writing.

Transformation is crucial for the story itself, too. In order to be most effective, you need to select and adapt material (whether from life or another source).

You need to choose a focus for the story, to tease out a plot and create characters (even if they are heavily inspired by life) who serve the story. It doesn’t matter if, as many new writers complain, “that’s not how it happened!” Your task is to find the emotional truth at the core of your story and make it shine.

 

Writing is a constructive way of using your experiences — which can help you value them.

Many experiences are awful. Writing is one way I can find value in them — it almost gives them a purpose. This provides another way of helping me to reframe those experiences, so the therapeutic effect continues.

As I said at the beginning of this post, the therapeutic effects of writing fiction complement the other ways ai manage my mental health. If you would like to try writing — or any other art — as therapy, go for it. However, my main reasons for writing have nothing to do with my mental health (except indirectly) and when I approach writing fiction, therapy is never foremost in my mind.

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!

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.

Turning Problems into Challenges

Thinking of your problems as challenges is, apparently, the first step to overcoming them. It fosters a positive attitude, because challenges seem nobler and more surmountable than your garden variety problems. Whereas problems niggle and prevent us from achieving our goals, challenges are goals in themselves and demand to be met.

Problems tend to promote black-and-white thinking: we think of them as either “solved” or “unsolved.” In contrast, we think of challenges as being fought over numerous battles, with each battle won bringing us closer to the ultimate goal of overcoming the challenge. This is particularly helpful when you are facing a complex and/or long-term issue like mental illness.

If you think of your mental illness as a problem, you set yourself up for failure because you cannot cure it in one fell swoop. There is no single action you can take to solve all of your mental health issues, although there are many actions you can take which have significant effects. Considering your mental illness as a challenge, on the other hand, helps you to tackle the issues you face.

Why it’s helpful to view mental illness as a challenge, not a problem:

  1. It reminds you that there will be ups and downs. Progress is rarely linear when tackling a challenge, especially when that challenge is dealing with mental illness. There will be good days and bad. It’s easier to cope when you see these fluctuations as a natural part of overcoming challenges.
  2. It encourages you to break down the challenge into smaller goals. Doing this is essential when you are facing complex issues. Every small goal you achieve is a vital step to overcoming the challenge. When you realise this, you learn to value every stage of progress, no matter how small, and slip-ups are less demoralising.
  3. It promotes a multi-faceted approach. Because challenges are complex, we accept that we will have to tackle different aspects of the challenge. If you planned to climb Everest, you would have to consider a variety of things and develop a number of skills. It’s not enough to buy a plane ticket and show up. You have to plan your ascent, raise money, improve your fitness, buy the appropriate equipment, etc. Addressing the challenge of mental illness likewise demands that you consider every angle.

Pinpointing your challenge/s.

Mental illness is a challenge because it prevents us from living the life we want. The life you want to live is individual to you and you have to decide what you want to achieve, the type of lifestyle you would like to have, the type of relationships you want, etc. It could be argued that many mental health conditions need to be managed rather than cured, so the illness itself is not a challenge — its effects are the real challenge/s you need to face. Whatever you view on whether all mental illnesses can be cured, it is useful to think of managing your mental health rather than curing an illness.

For one thing, everybody has to manage their mental health. Regardless of whether you have experienced mental illness, you have a mental health profile — just as everyone has a physical health profile. You have fears and emotions. Your confidence fluctuates. You have thoughts. These are all aspects of mental health; aspects you need to consider if they are preventing you from living the life you want.

Life doesn’t stop when you have a mental illness, even if it often feels like it has stopped. Viewing your mental health as part of your challenge/s reminds you that mental illness is a part of your life, not its whole. One of my challenges is building a freelance writing career while coping with depression and anxiety. Note that my challenge is not to cope with depression and anxiety and then build a freelance writing career. I can’t put my life on hold — I have tried to put it on hold before and it doesn’t work!

Trying to cure your mental illness before striving towards other goals is a sign that you are thinking of your mental illness as a problem, not a challenge. Start with small goals: one of my past challenges was to shower and eat proper meals despite feeling depressed. A challenge I recently overcame, taking my dog for a walk on my own, seems small to most people but was a big deal for me. Your challenges are unique to you.

It’s all about shifting your perspective.

When you have mental health issues, it’s difficult to see past them. Reframing your problems as challenges helps you to see that moving past them is a possibility. Even if it feels like a very distant possibility, the shift in how you think still makes a difference. Your attitude will gradually change simply because you are aware of this possibility.

After all, hope is intrinsic to challenges.

 

 

 

Wednesday Recommendation: Brené Brown

I was a little sceptical when I bought Brené Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection. After years of being a perfectionist, having permission to be myself was something I regarded with suspicion. However, I liked the idea of embracing my imperfections — even if I didn’t think it would work.

I’m glad I put my scepticism aside. Brown not only reminded me that I am human and cannot be perfect, but taught me about the advantages of being imperfect. The book is split into “guideposts” which explain how to cultivate qualities like self-compassion, resilience and creativity. There is a lot to inspire even the most trenchant perfectionist!

Brown is my kind of self-help author: she writes with empathy and openness, but doesn’t slip into sentimentality. She is motivating but realistic. She addresses both the meaty issues and aspects of wellbeing that some people tend to dismiss, like paying attention netion to your intuition.

I plan to read more of Brown’s books, but in the meantime I will keep re-reading The Gifts of Imperfection and try to implement her advice. However, simply reading the book has altered my mindset and made me more forgiving of my failings and imperfections.

See Brené Brown’s website brenebrown.com for more information.

The Myth of Independence

Everyone wants to be independent, right? We want to have the freedom to do what we want without relying on other people. We want to live according to our own goals and values. We tend to think that depending on other people will get in the way of living our lives as we wish. That’s all bullshit: nobody is truly independent.

I struggled with having to rely on my parents. I have had mental health problems throughout my adult life, so I’ve depended on them for practical and financial support for thirteen years. I had to leave three jobs because of mental illness; despite providing doctor’s notes explaining my absences, my employers seemed to regard the absences with suspicion and instead of supporting me, put me under more pressure so I ended up resigning. I have paid my parents “rent” to cover some of the grocery and utilities I use since I left college at eighteen, but my finances have been irregular for long periods so my parents have lent me a lot of money. I would not be able to live alone because the benefits I receive barely cover the living expenses I have now, which are minimal.

I also rely on my parents to pick up my antidepressant prescription. I could probably do this myself nowadays, but in the past I have been too scared to leave the house – let alone go into a pharmacy and talk to strangers. My mum also makes sure I eat a proper dinner most of the time, which sounds trivial but makes a big difference when I’m too depressed to cook for myself. My parents accompany me to appointments when needed and make phone calls on my behalf when I’m too anxious to do it myself.

As you can tell, my life is far from independent. I rely on state benefits and my parents just to survive. I rely on the NHS to provide me with treatment for my mental illness – treatment which has helped me to become a little more independent. I have learnt not to feel guilty about being a burden; at least, most of the time – it’s one of my major insecurities during periods of depression and/or anxiety. I have also observed something interesting: I have never met a wholly independent person.

All UK residents are entitled to NHS treatment which is free at the point of service. We rely on our employers to pay us on time and follow workplace laws which protect us. We depend on the police force to prevent crime and convict criminals. We expect supermarkets to sell us good quality food. Even if we consider ourselves to be someone who will never claim benefits (hey, I used to be one of you!), the welfare state still provides a safety net. Whether you like it or not, you are not self-sufficient.

On a personal level, most of us depend on family and/or friends for many things. Moreover, many of us like helping others and enjoy being asked to help out a friend or relative (within reason, of course!) – yet we balk at the idea of asking for help ourselves. I also find it fascinating how some forms of dependence are accepted, while others are criticised by many people. Apparently, living with my parents at 31 is shameful, but if I had kids and relied on them for free childcare nobody would bat an eyelid. Going to an appointment with your mother is viewed as a bit weird, whereas going with a partner is completely normal.

Being so dependent has opened my eyes to the hypocrisy surrounding the idea of “independence”. The major difference between those who think they are independent and the rest of us, is that we are aware of how we depend on others. A lot of people are simply unaware of their own privilege, like the middle class white male who gets a good job because he was recommended by a friend of a friend but is convinced he was the best candidate. Independence is an illusion. Once we give up this illusion, society will be more empathetic and compassionate towards those who need support – in particular, elderly people, people with disabilities and people with mental health problems. When we accept that nobody is wholly independent, we empower everybody to set and achieve their own goals in life, without worrying about how others may judge them.

After all, nobody is going to tell Stephen Hawking “yeah, you might be one of the most successful physicists of our time, but your achievements don’t count because you depend on other people to fulfil your basic physical needs” – so why do so many people think it’s acceptable to ignore some people’s achievements simply because we can’t be as independent as others?