Mustering Enthusiasm

A few weeks ago, I reached the point where I was sick of feeling lethargic and unmotivated. I felt I was achieving nothing and realised I was missing the one thing which keeps me going, even when I’m struggling with my mental health: enthusiasm.

Parachuting

When I’m at my best, I am full of enthusiasm. It drives other attributes which define who I am at my best, including creativity, determination and curiosity. Unfortunately, a lot of those attributes seem to have slipped away this year.

Struggling

I have debated over whether to blog about this, because I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me or see it as a plea for attention. One of the risks of speaking up about your mental health problems, especially if you have borderline personality disorder, is getting stuck in a Catch 22 situation: you need to be honest and open about your experiences in order to help people understand, yet being open and honest exposes you to accusations of attention seeking and manipulation.

Part of me feels it’s “wrong” to discuss the negative aspects of my illnesses because I’m coping better than many other people. I’m coping better than I did in the past. However, “coping better” still involves numerous days of feeling suicidal. My self-harming and panic attacks have both increased this year. Often, it doesn’t feel like I’m coping at all.

There are a few obvious reasons for this decline in my mental health. I’m dealing with chronic pain from gallstones and sometimes it feels as if this alone has stolen huge chunks of my life. It stops me from fully enjoying fun activities and spending time with friends. I’m also reluctant to book tickets for events I would like to attend, because if my gallstones are playing up it will be a nightmare or if I have a bad episode, I would have to cancel anyway and lose money. In addition, gallstones symptoms interrupt my exercise routine, which is my main mental health management strategy. Missing a couple of workouts might not sound like a big deal to most people, but it’s akin to skipping antidepressants several days in a row – not advisable and potentially dangerous. My mental health gets worse when I’m less active, which means it’s harder to either get back to exercising or use other healthy coping strategies.

The surge in some of my symptoms is partly due to challenging myself in ways to which I’m not accustomed (understatement!). I completed an 8 month temporary job for a local youth mental health organisation which involved situations I find very difficult due to anxiety. While I’m proud to have stuck at it, there were many times when I thought they had made a mistake in hiring me and I felt I wasn’t good enough. I had hoped it would be a confidence-building challenge which could encourage me to seek more opportunities, but it led to a lot of self-doubt instead.

Finally, my Open University degree is going well, but while I’m pleased with my module results for the 2018/19 academic year, I wish I had been less stressed and more able to enjoy the process. Which is why, as my next modules are about to start, I want to recapture my enthusiasm.

Searching for motivation

Once I identified enthusiasm as something which would be beneficial, I turned to Google and typed “How to be more enthusiastic.” The search resulted in a lot of websites which churned out the same advice (this one is good but typical). As with a lot of wellbeing and self-improvement advice, some of it was very obvious but difficult to actually implement, especially if you have mental health problems. I know it’s important to sleep and eat well, for example, but depression and anxiety messes with both my sleeping and eating patterns.

However, one of the obvious options is exercise and I realised the importance of increasing my physical activity before my mood plummets further and makes it all but impossible. Exercise also helps me sleep better. Goal 1 of Project Enthusiasm was born: move more.

Moving more is easy in theory, but harder in practice. I was already sticking to my gym classes and walking the dogs at least 2 miles a day, but this isn’t enough to improve my mental health beyond the basic “get out of bed but zone out in from of the TV most of the day” level. To get the full benefits of exercise, I need to run at least 2/3 times a week. Running works for me in a way which other types of exercise simply don’t – I can slip into a kind of mindful meditation once I get into the rhythm of a run and focus on nothing but my current experience. Being free from the constant negative self-talk is a relief in itself, but then the serotonin increases after 15 minutes or so and I notice a shift in my mood.

So I have gotten back to running over the past couple of weeks and it’s working. No miracles have been wrought, but I’m a little less depressed and a little more motivated. Some of the runs have been very hard, but I force myself to start and each time I want to stop, I tell myself to try and run for 1 more minute. Often, this is every minute of the run. I have run slower than planned some sessions, but I have hit my mileage targets and these small achievements give me some confidence.

Note: I would never run through pain. When I tell myself to push through, it’s pushing through discomfort and while some of this discomfort is physical, it’s mostly mental. It’s a cliché to say people rarely regret a run (or different workout), but it’s true for me: I gain a sense of achievement from sticking to my plan and as someone who spent 20 years not being able to run far, I get a kick out of knowing I can keep going for a certain distance.

Reconnecting

The other strategy for mustering enthusiasm which resonated with me is to explore whatever you find interesting. To cultivate a sense of curiosity. For me, studying psychology and writing fiction are important, yet I have been feeling disconnected from both of them. Finishing last year’s psychology modules was so stressful that I lost touch with my love of learning the subject; completing the assignments was a bigger priority than exploring topics. Writing got pushed aside as my health problems ate up bigger chunks of my time, although perhaps I’m also experiencing a lingering disappointment or grief over my last novel attempt not working out as I had hoped.

Reading is the most accessible inroad (for me) to reconnecting with both fiction and psychology, so I made it more of a priority. I cut down on watching TV and forced myself to pick up a book, despite my mental health affecting my concentration. As with exercising, I felt a sense of “use it or lose it” because while I love reading and learning, I was unable to read when my mental illness was at its worst. I feel guilty for saying this, since I’m a writer, but when you’re depressed and anxious, it’s far easier to switch on the TV or play games than to read – even while you are able to do so. However, once I started reading more (in both frequency of reading sessions and duration), it became easier to concentrate.

I chose to focus on reading because I didn’t want to pressure myself to write a certain number of words, but I’m easing back into writing mote. Again, nothing miraculous has occurred and I haven’t completed a novel in two weeks, but I’m a little more productive. Immersing myself in stories has brought some inspiration.

Similarly, getting a head start on my OU module materials has reminded me of why I decided to do a Psychology BSc. The subject is fascinating and I want to apply my knowledge to my own life, as well as (hopefully) using it to help others in the future. My career plans are still fuzzy, but I would like to improve people’s understanding of mental health and empower people who have mental health problems to achieve their own goals. I guess I’m reconnecting with my sense of purpose.

Progress

I’m two and a half weeks into Project Enthusiasm and I say this tentatively, but…there have been definite improvements. While I will probably never be the type of person who bounces out of bed excited to see what the day brings, I’m trying to act in more enthusiastic ways. For the most part, this means forcing myself to start a run or a book chapter – once I get going, momentum (or stubbornness!) usually gets me through. My mood isn’t fantastic, but I feel less wretched and excited to get stuck into the new academic year. I even found the motivation to blog!

I’m also trying to emphasise the positive aspects of my life, because it hasn’t been all doom and gloom this year. The best change is the fact that I’m typing this while sitting on my new bed, in my new, bigger bedroom – one of many advantages caused by my brother moving out! I feel very lucky to be studying psychology and despite the ridiculous bloating (thanks to my gallstones), I’m maintaining a weight which is the closest I’ve been to a healthy BMI for many years. Sure, I wish things were better, but at least I feel like I’m heading in the right direction.

Shifting

The clocks going forward is always welcome to me, because the improvement in my mood is almost immediate. Everything shifts. It doesn’t mean I don’t have bad days and my depression doesn’t get cured miraculously, but I’m a little less depressed and it’s a little easier to cope. I feel less overwhelmed.

The brighter evenings make it easier to use some coping strategies which I find helpful, including spending more time outside and exercising outside. I can organise my day so that I can make time to walk or run in the evening. The change to BST is a powerful reminder that spring is here and summer is coming: things will change and get better. When my days are (generally) brighter and warmer, focusing on the positive aspects of my life becomes more natural to me.

Summer will also bring the end of my second year studying for a Psychology BSc part time with the Open University. I have three assignments left to complete for my two modules. It has been a difficult academic year, because the first half coincided with my gallstones making themselves known. Before I got diagnosed, I found it incredibly hard to cope. Until the past month, I was constantly trying to catch up on the work I had neglected when I was ill, falling behind on one module as I struggled to meet an assignment deadline for the other. I wish I had managed to enjoy studying more, as I find the subject fascinating and a lot of the material resonated with me.

Thankfully, my gallstones are a lot quieter at the moment, although I dread another bad attack. I still have the baseline pain and nausea, but I have found ways to cope. A friend recommended rubbing lavender oil on my stomach, because it’s anti-spasmodic, and that has been more effective than anything else I have tried (thanks, Su!). I also rely heavily on heat pads and find that intermittent fasting (eating during an 8 hour window) helps a lot. I still get moderate attacks, but not severe ones like I was getting from October to January, which left me writhing on the floor in agony. I’m hoping this will continue until June, because my end-of-module assignments are due at the end of May…

I’m also coping better because I’m exercising more, although there is some circularity in that it’s easier for me to exercise more when I feel better! I have been running again, which is brilliant for both my mental health and the gallstones. Although it’s difficult to ignore the gallstones pain, especially as it likes to affect my back and the tops of my hips (the iliotibial band), the endorphins kick in after 10-15 minutes and are an effective painkiller. I get a psychological boost from exercising, as well, because it helps me feel fit and strong. Knowing I’m getting stronger physically helps me feel as if I’m getting stronger mentally.

It finally feels like I’m moving forward again, after a hard winter. I’m making progress towards my goals, even if it’s slower than I would like, and things are beginning to change.

Setbacks and Balancing Acts

I haven’t blogged for a long time and there are usually two reasons: either I’m ill or I’m very busy. Both apply to my recent absence. I have started a new job, which I’m very pleased, excited and anxious about! It’s only six hours a week and temporary, but I want to do my best and have a significant impact, as I will be working with young people on an art project exploring mental health. My studies with the Open University continue, which is a heavy workload because I’m taking two modules (60 and 30 credits) this year and it gets very intense when deadlines are close together. In case this wasn’t enough upheaval, The Universe decided to throw a spanner into the works…

Balancing wood

I have been experiencing a lot of abdominal and middle back pain since October, along with constant nausea and some other symptoms. At first, I thought I had gastritis because I’m prone to getting bad gastritis, but some of the symptoms didn’t fit and the pain didn’t subside like it normally does. Last week, an ultrasound scan confirmed I have gallstones.

While it’s good to have a diagnosis, after three months of not being sure what was wrong, knowing I have gallstones doesn’t stop them from disrupting my life. A lot of people reacted to my suspicions that I had gallstones by saying “ooh, that’s very painful.” Now I know I have them, I can confirm that yes, they are extremely painful! I’m seeing my doctor next week, but in the meantime I spend most of my day with heat pads clamped to my upper abdomen and middle back/shoulder blades.

The gallstones are disrupting my life in general, making it difficult to establish a routine — which is something with which I struggle most of the time anyway, having to work around my mental health problems. They also stop me from following my exercise routine, which I depend on to manage my mental health, meaning the depression and anxiety have been taking hold. It’s been a stressful few months, for various reasons, and my physical health is preventing me from using some of my main coping strategies.

It’s easy for people to say I shouldn’t worry and to take it easy, but regular exercise is crucial for my wellbeing. When I stopped taking antidepressants, I replaced them with physical activity. Exercise has loads of neurochemical and psychological benefits which are essential for me to cope. Being unable to go to classes or run because I’m curled up in a ball of pain and/or vomiting has huge implications for my mood over the following days and weeks.

So I have been struggling.

The sporadic exercise and odd eating patterns have taken their toll: I have gained weight and am around 10lbs more than I was in October, when I reached my lowest weight of 174.5lbs. I use the word “around” because I’m extremely bloated and my weight varies a lot. I can be anything between 180lb and 190lb on any given day. I feel fat and puffy. It’s difficult to keep things in perspective and not feel like I’m undoing all my hard work.

I’m also painfully aware that gallstones can be caused by weight loss, which feels like a punch in the gut. For the first time in my life, I have been losing weight with a healthy approach — a healthy mindset and a healthy eating plan. I haven’t lost weight quickly or followed a high protein diet, both of which are associated with gallstones. Health was one of my main motivations for losing weight, as I have a close family history of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, which I would like to avoid. I did everything “right” and perhaps it’s stupid and immature, but I feel as if I’m being punished.

Balancing everything is very difficult. I’m trying to practice self-care and focus on the positive aspects of my life, but it’s hard. I feel as though I’m being dragged backwards just as things were beginning to go well.

Logically, I know the improvements I have made cannot be undone, especially by gallstones and a dip in my mental health. I’m still managing to work and study, thanks to both having very flexible hours. I have made it to most of my gym classes, although it’s frustrating when I have to cancel one. Gaining 10lbs is hardly slipping back into my old ways when I’m 60lb lighter than I was at the beginning of last year and over 100lb under my heaviest. I know plenty of people struggle much more than me, but it’s frustrating to see my progress slow or halt when I want to rush forward.

I’m trying to think of this period as a sidestep off my path (to recovery, achieving my goals, leading a life worth living, etc) rather than slipping backwards. I need to take the time to recover and do what I can, instead of pressuring myself to chase down more goals. In fact, my goals for 2019 are all continuations of what I have been doing: losing weight/getting fitter, working on my writing and trying to improve my finances. Sure, I wish I could achieve them all at top speed, but slow progress will still get me where I want to be.

I love setting goals, chasing my dreams and challenging myself, but sometimes we need to step aside and take a break. To maintain our position instead of risking harm by pushing on, regardless of how much it hurts. Strip everything back to your priorities and do what you can, instead of stressing about what you wish you could do.

Mental Health and the Cult of Busyness

People seem to like being busy nowadays. If work doesn’t take up enough of their time, they schedule leisure and side projects with alarming rigidity. Even children have their “free” time segmented into extracurricular classes, clubs, groups and playdates. They then complain that they never have enough time – except it’s not complaining, because they detail their many activities in such a way that it’s showing off. Claiming “I don’t have the time” has become shorthand for “Look how busy and important I am.”


The implication is that if you don’t fill your days with a list of tasks longer than all of your limbs combined, you don’t matter. You’re not important. So where does that leave those of us with mental health problems?

I can’t schedule every minute of my day because I don’t know how my mental health will affect me on any given day. The best I can do is work around my mental illness. I can spend hours “doing nothing” – not out of choice, but because anxiety and depression paralyse me. I get trapped in negative thinking patterns and it drains my energy.
I would prefer to be able to fill my day to the brim, but I don’t think that’s particularly healthy. It places a lot of pressure on people, especially when things don’t go according to plan (which is inevitable at some point). If I try to live like this (and I have, in the past), I go into meltdown. My mental illness gets worse and I lose sight of what is truly important. Unfortunately, many people live like this without questioning its effects, because busyness has become the norm.

Busyness seems to be embedded in our culture. Whereas in past centuries people worked long hours to put food on the table, many people nowadays work to get more – more gadgets, more exotic holidays, more expensive cars, bigger houses. The problem is that a lot of this stuff is meaningless. It doesn’t make people happier and has a negative impact on their mental health. Is it a coincidence that mental illness appears to have increased as society has amassed more money and consumer goods?

Perhaps the cult of busyness wouldn’t be such a problem if it didn’t involve so much judgment.

People constantly judge how others spend their time. I know someone who when asked by a colleague whether she was doing overtime on a particular day, said no because she had things to do and was told “well, we all have things to do.” Yes, but it happened to be this person’s birthday – and her father had died suddenly 10 days before. I suggested she should have pointed this out, since funeral arrangements are pretty big priorities, but why should she? Nobody should have to justify how they spend their time.

Yet everyone seems to be clamouring to justify how they decide to spend their own time. How many times have you heard someone rattle off a list of reasons when asked whether they are doing something or attending an event? We feel obliged to explain ourselves when all that’s needed is a simple “no”.

We might feel the need to explain ourselves because other people are so judgmental. I have lost count of the number of times people have told me “I don’t have time to read” when they actually meant “I don’t consider reading a priority”, suggesting that I spend my time frivolously because I have always made time to read. Because reading isn’t important to them, they judge me for reading; they assume I don’t do anything else important, because their fuzzy logic dictates that anyone doing important things doesn’t have time to read. Actually, reading is essential for me because I am a writer. I also consider it vital for cultivating and maintaining good mental health. I think that’s pretty damned important. But why should I have to explain that reading is not just a hobby for me, but an integral part of my career and mental healthcare?

 

A major problem with the cult of busyness is its assumption of uniformity. It assumes we are all alike and have similar priorities which we address in similar ways. Mental health issues are not considered.

Mental illness has forced me to carve out my own path. I can’t fit the mould created by the cult of busyness. And people’s proselytization of the cult of busyness makes me feel worse, implying that I’m inadequate or unimportant. That because I don’t schedule every moment of my life, I don’t matter.

Must-do list

So here is my plea to everyone, whether or not you subscribe to the cult of busyness:

1. Please don’t ask other people to justify how they spend their time.

It’s none of your business. People are free to select their own priorities and organise their lives accordingly. They might be dealing with problems which make it difficult to live what you consider to be a conventional life. They might just have different goals and interests, which means they value activities which you consider worthless and vice versa. It doesn’t matter why they spend their time differently to how you spend yours – they don’t owe you an explanation.

2. Don’t judge how others spend their time.

What seems unimportant to you might be essential for them. You don’t know whether particular activities are coping strategies or simple pleasures in an otherwise difficult life. Many activities have varying purposes and levels of importance in different contexts. For example: cooking can be a decadent hobby for one person, a way to feed their family nutritious food for another and the means of earning a living for another person. Unless you fully understand someone’s situation (which might not be possible, even if you are close), you are in no position to judge how they live.

3. Stop using the phrase “I don’t have the time”.

It’s an excuse, not a reason, and implies judgement of people who choose to make time for whatever you claim not to have the time to do. Everyone has the same amount of time: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Be honest and say “that’s not a priority for me at the moment” or, better still, stop trying to explain your choices. If someone invites you somewhere and you don’t want to go or have a prior engagement, say so briefly: “no, thank you” or “I’m already booked, but perhaps another time”. If someone asks you if you do something, just say yes or no. If they don’t ask and are just talking about an activity they enjoy, say nothing.

4. Stop showing off about being busy – especially through pseudo-complaints.

Some of us would love to be able to maintain your packed schedule. A successful career and vibrant social life? Yes, please! What you consider chores, others might consider to be components of a dream life. Next time you complain about having to ferry your kids around and clean the house, think about the people who would love to have children and their own home but are prevented from having them by circumstance.

5. Don’t make unsolicited comments about how other people spend their time.

I have a neighbour who thinks it’s amusing to say “all right for some!” when he sees other people sitting in their gardens. Regardless of whether they are also looking after children or have been at work all day. His thought process appears to be “they are relaxing and I am not, therefore I need to point out that I am busy”. I’m sure there is no malicious intent, but the implication, once again, is that he is more important than anyone who is not working or running errands.

Purple scream

This follows on from not judging how other people spend their time; you don’t know whether they have been relaxing all day or are snatching a quick break between tasks. Either way, it doesn’t matter. How they spend their time doesn’t affect you. The “all right for some” comment seems innocuous, but it can be hurtful and harmful. Someone (cough, my mum, cough) says it when she sees me watching TV, which makes me feel annoyed if I have spent most of the day working and upset if my mental health has prevented me from working. As a rule of thumb, don’t comment on how someone spends their time unless it has a direct impact on you – and be sensitive, because you never know what problems they are hiding.

6. Stop creating more work for yourself.

Most people are constantly busy through choice, not necessity. The trouble is, many convince themselves that the opposite is true. Your house will not fall down or turn into a hovel if you vacuum once a week, instead of every other day. If your evening classes have become chores which don’t contribute to your wellbeing or other priorities, they are not worth the sacrifice. Make work emails wait until morning if they are not urgent, instead of frantically answering them at midnight. Busywork can be as much of a time-suck as watching TV for hours – it yields similar results, with none of the pleasure.

7. Consider opting out.

A lot of people who buy into the cult of busyness seem to be stressed and unhappy. If this is the case for you, why not stop? You might be surprised to learn that you can cope with working fewer hours, even if it means only having one holiday a year or going without the latest iPhone, and be happier for doing so. You could discover you have more fun if you just hang out with your partner, instead of scheduling daytrips and dates every weekend. If you are already stressed and unhappy, what have you got to lose?

8. Finally, think about your mental health – and other people’s.

It’s frustrating when people make assumptions about what I can/can’t do, based on their own experiences and/or perceptions of me on good days. There are days when I can out-busy anyone, when I feel motivated, productive and full of energy. But they are few and far between. My mental health problems don’t let me act like a fully paid up member of the cult of busyness.

And that might be a good thing. While some people thrive under pressure (myself included), nobody benefits from constant stress with no respite. Even if you are coping well, consider how your lifestyle might affect your health in future – especially your mental health.