Changing Tides

It’s the end of summer and everything feels distinctly autumnal. I’m particularly sensitive to this feeling because my mental health usually dips over the winter months, plus there are a couple of major beginnings and endings on the horizon.

Seascape

An Ending

I’m approaching the “end” of my current novel. I have been rewriting it for several months and hope to have it in decent shape within a month. Of course, the “end” will hopefully be the beginning, if I’m fortunate enough to attract an agent. If I’m even luckier and get a publishing deal, there will be a lot of extra work ahead, including more rewriting and editing.

Yet completing the novel means letting go. It means exposing it to readers — potential agents, publishers, competition judges, editors, perhaps people who decide to buy the book (if it gets published). I will have to send it out into the world.

My main concern isn’t receiving criticism of my writing: I’m used to criticism and rejections, which are inevitable for every writer. In fact, I prefer getting constructive criticism rather than a vague “not for us” rejection. I like to know how my writing comes across; how I can improve. I want to get better at writing and critiques are essential if I am to improve.

I suppose I’m worried that the novel might have no potential. That I’m wasting my time trying to write novels. There might be a fear of moving on to the next and trying to apply the lessons I have learnt. What if I can’t improve? What if I never write a publishable novel?

Perhaps the real problem is the uncertainty. If a time traveller from 2020 (or beyond) told me my current novel was terrible and never published, I would just shrug and move on. I would consider it a time-consuming but worthwhile exercise, helping me to learn my craft — like my last attempt at writing a novel. If the time traveller told me it got published and was reasonably well received, I would be ecstatic. I don’t like not knowing.

Ending a major phase of any project makes me feel reflective. I question my goals and achievements. I fence with self-doubt. I worry that I won’t complete the next phase, that things will go wrong or that I’m just not good enough. Mental illness takes these normal feelings and blends them with my symptoms, creating a lot of turmoil. It can be intense, but I can ride it out.

 

 

A Beginning.

I will start my Psychology BSc with the Open University in October. I’m excited, but also nervous — which I suppose is normal. It’s a big commitment, since studying will form a large proportion of my life for the next 5 years, but it’s also incredibly important to me.

I wouldn’t be so nervous if I didn’t care. I’m worried that my mental health will affect my studies because I want to learn as much as I can. I don’t want to put my studies on hold or scrape through by the skin of my teeth. I want to be able to engage with the material and complete assignments to the best of my ability.

I’m especially wary because of past experience. When I did my Film Studies BA, a decline in my mental health in the final year (not helped by also being diagnosed with a serious eye condition which could lead to blindness) meant my grades dropped by 10%. I went from being on course for a 1:1 from the first semester, earning a Dean’s Commendation in my second year, to getting a good-but-disappointing 2:1. I know I should be proud to have done so well when facing tough challenges, but it’s frustrating when my mental health prevents me from doing my best.

I appreciate the irony of worrying about my mental health affecting my degree, when my experience of mental illness has motivated my decision to study Psychology. I’m fed up with repeating the same patterns, battling and working like mad only to fall short in the end. Yes, I do the best I can in my particular circumstances, but that’s not very reassuring when I know I’m capable of more.

I hope studying Psychology will be a fresh start. My mental health is better (in general) than it has been for a long time and I have good coping strategies. Grades and results aren’t as important to me nowadays — instead of setting out to prove something to myself (and/or others who doubt me), I want to use what I learn to help myself and others.

 

Adjusting

I want to change my life, which involves a large degree of uncertainty and a lot of learning to cope with the effects. The changing seasons emphasise how life follows cycles; how natural it is to change direction and evolve. However, accepting — even embracing — the inevitability of change doesn’t make it easy.

When you have mental health issues, it feels like your whole life is filtered through them — determined by them, at the worst points. It’s annoying and frustrating. It can make you feel sad, angry, hopeless. I often wish I had never experienced mental illness.

But… without experiencing mental health problems, I doubt I would have tried to write a novel or studied the subjects I’m truly passionate about at university. I often feel like I’m not living a full life, because mental illness prevents me from doing so many “normal” things, yet many perfectly healthy people lead half-lives and don’t follow their dreams. They limit themselves and don’t set goals or take risks. If I didn’t have mental health issues, I think I may have been one of those people.

 

 

Why I’m Open About My Mental Health

Mental health is being talked about more nowadays, but I suppose I am more open about my mental health problems than the average person.

Acknowledging this is strange to me, because I don’t feel like I am revealing a great deal. Even when I write personal posts, like A Shift in Perspective and The Delights of Anxiety, I am being very selective about the information I share. While I try not to censor myself, I don’t want to reveal some personal information or all the gory details, especially when it relates to other people in my life instead of just me.

My main reason for being so open about my experience of mental illness is to help reduce the stigma. While I don’t judge anyone who prefers to keep their mental health problems private, I felt that I was being hypocritical in complaining about the stigma surrounding mental health without doing my bit to help reduce it.

 

People have said I’m brave for talking about my mental illness, but I don’t feel brave.

Talking about my mental health problems can be difficult, but not compared to staying silent. It’s easier to be honest about my struggles than to pretend I’m fine, which is an approach I tried for years. In some ways, I feel I didn’t have a choice but to express myself, because not talking made me feel isolated and caused more pain.

I have also been privileged to have other people tell me they have experienced mental health problems, which reassures me that speaking out is right for me. It means a lot to have people say they are glad I talk about my mental health openly. If my blogging and talking about mental health helps anyone feel a little less alone, it’s worth the risk.

 

I know some people will judge me and use my openness against me, given half the chance.

There is still a lot of ignorance in the world. I know some people would read my blog and conclude that I am weak or lazy. They will use my blog as an excuse not to employ me. They might avoid establishing a relationship with me because I have revealed so much about my mental health. Maybe my openness will make many other things more difficult for me, though my instinct says I wouldn’t want to deal with anyone who judges other people because they have an illness.

I suppose my attitude is influenced by being unable to stand up for myself in the past. My mental health problems have led to me resigning from every job I have had, partly because I didn’t have the confidence or strength to argue my case when employers treated me unfairly. I’m determined not to let myself be undermined in the same way again — which is partly why I’m a freelance writer!

 

I also hope talking about my mental health will encourage others to talk about mental health.

I want everyone to talk about mental health in the same way we talk about physical health. It doesn’t mean that we all have to reveal everything about our experiences as soon as we meet someone (I certainly don’t greet people by saying “Hi, I’m Hayley and I have anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder, keratocconus and a long history of ear infections”!), but it should mean that we can talk about our mental health without shame — if and when we choose.

If being open about my mental health problems makes it easier for anyone to start a conversation about mental health, I will have accomplished something good. That is all any of us can hope for!

Writing, Validity and Vulnerability

I received my contributor’s copy of the 2017 Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual this week.

Aesthetica 2017 Creative Writing Annual

It’s only the second time I have had a short story published in print, so it’s a great achievement for me at this point in my career. My story, Things I Have Wasted Money On, previously won the Devon Prize in the 2015/16 Exeter Writers Short Story Competition. I enjoyed writing it and liked experimenting with its quirky format, which I hope tells the story and expresses the narrator’s emotions in an interesting way.

I also recently won 3rd place in the Erewash Writers’ Group 2016 Open Short Story Competition, which was judged by Patsy Collins. Again, this is a big deal to me because I haven’t had much success with writing competitions. Partly because I don’t enter as many as I should.

 

Submitting writing means being vulnerable.

When you enter a short story competition or submit work to a writing journal, you are inviting rejection. Most stories will be rejected. Very successful, established writers get rejections, so when your career is embryonic, rejection is not only expected – it is inevitable.

Exposing yourself to rejection is never fun, but it is necessary. The alternative is to write purely for yourself, to lock your stories away in a drawer and never let anyone read them apart from yourself. This isn’t an option for me, because I am passionate about literature and writing. I want people to read my work. I want them to like my stories. I want my fiction to evoke emotion and raise questions for people, to challenge their thoughts and assumptions. I would also like to earn a living from writing. All of this cannot be achieved without allowing myself to be vulnerable.

This is difficult for every writer. Well, maybe a few writers are super-confident and genuinely don’t care if everyone hates their work, but I have never met them. However, it is doubly difficult when you have mental health problems which make you constantly question your ability.

 

Small successes provide validity.

Hence these small successes mean a lot to me. They offer evidence that my work is worth reading, that I’m not wasting my time and energy. They are a small counterargument to that voice in my head which says “you’re kidding yourself, you can’t write” and “don’t bother submitting stories, because you’re wasting everyone’s time.”

It would be nice to not need or want such validity, to have utter confidence in my writing, but that’s not the way it is. External validation holds a lot of value for me.

So as much as I enjoy these small successes in and of themselves, they convince me to keep going. To keep submitting my work in the hope that someone will like it, that someone might believe it has value.

Ultimately, vulnerability and validity are two sides of the same coin. Part of me wishes I didn’t feel so vulnerable and that I weren’t so reliant on external validity, but it shows that I care. Writing is important to me and I want other people to believe my work is worthwhile. If just a few people enjoy my stories, that makes me happy.

 

Taking a Leap

I achieved one of the major goals I set for this year: as of yesterday, I am no longer on benefits. I stopped claiming ESA.

People keep telling me how awesome this is — even when I mentioned my intentions, people responded with enormous enthusiasm — but my overarching emotion at the moment is not joy or relief or excitement. It’s fear.

All leaps are a leap of faith

Why am I scared? Because I have lost my safety net. Living on benefits is no fun, for sure, and I didn’t receive a lot (just over £5200 a year, which would be impossible to live on if it weren’t for the support of my parents), but it was a regular income. Now, as a self-employed writer, I am responsible for providing myself with as regular an income as I can. Part of me wants to run away and hide.

Yet I know that this is an essential step towards achieving my long-term goals. I also know that there is a good chance I will be able to make it work, aided by my new job writing CVs for an international company. In some ways, that makes me more anxious: when there is a good chance of success, failure seems less excusable. It puts more pressure on me because there are more expectations.

So why am I putting myself through this additional stress? Because the alternative is less palatable. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life on benefits, never able to buy my own home or even move out of my parents’ house. I want more than a miserable existence punctuated by the odd fun night out. I want to earn a living from the work I enjoy and I want my life to be meaningful.

I believe this is possible. I don’t have a great deal of faith right now, but I found enough faith (and hope) to make the leap.

Learning to Be Vulnerable

A lot of our fears and anxieties centre on one key fear: that of exposing ourselves. No, I don’t mean literal nakedness – that’s a cinch compared to what I’m talking about, emotional vulnerability. It’s natural to keep our emotions, feelings and thoughts hidden; in many circumstances, revealing them does leave you vulnerable to harm. From an evolutionary viewpoint, revealing fear is dangerous and exposes you to predators. It makes sense for a caveman to pretend he is fearless and act aggressively when faced with a sabre-toothed tiger. It’s a sensible approach in some circumstances nowadays, especially when you can’t trust the people around you. However, in some situations it is better to show your vulnerability.

It’s essential to let your close friends and family see that you can be vulnerable. It’s exhausting to pretend to be confident and self-assured 24/7 and does no favours for the people you care about, who may feel that they can’t show their own vulnerability. It’s natural to feel fear, doubt, shame, sadness, embarrassment, anger, disappointment, etc. By expressing these emotions in an appropriate manner, you teach others that their own feelings are validated and that they can deal with them.

On a wider scale, you are vulnerable whenever you take a risk that exposes you to potential criticism. You aren’t in any physical danger, yet you might get hurt emotionally. However, the alternative is to never take this type of risk; to stagnate. This is particularly pertinent when it comes to your career: success in most fields depends on putting yourself in vulnerable situations, like interviews and submitting work. If you opt out, you don’t progress.

Learning to be vulnerable involves accepting that vulnerability is necessary if you are to grow. It means you start to embrace the benefits of emotionally exposing yourself, such as gaining constructive feedback which you can use to improve. You can start with a few forays into showing your vulnerability and gradually increase the frequency. You will notice a paradox: the more vulnerable you become (or rather, the more you demonstrate your vulnerability), the more your confidence grows.

Vulnerability is linked to confidence because it cultivates self-acceptance. When you come to terms with your vulnerability, you begin to see that your flaws and failings are often mirror images of your strengths. You will also realise that most people accept your vulnerability – and many welcome the opportunity to interact with you on a “real” level, which is only achieved when you show yourself to be vulnerable. You will gain pleasure from situations which depend on exposing yourself to emotional danger, because taking the risk and being human is preferable to the alternative.

Think about dating: if you are to form a real connection, you must open yourself up and be vulnerable. Sure, your date might not like you or they might criticise you, but so what? You aren’t right for each other and need to move on to the next person. The alternatives are to never ask anyone on a date, which might get very lonely, or to put on a false front which will protect your feelings but also prevent you from interacting with others in any way that’s not superficial. The same is true of other situations – if you submit a piece of work which is important to you, for example, it might be rejected but at least there is a chance that it will be accepted. The alternative in this case is to never submit important work, which is pointless.

Being vulnerable can be painful. Criticism hurts more when you care: I can cope with rejections for stories which don’t mean much to me, but every rejection for a story I love cuts me to the core. But the pain is worth it because being vulnerable is the only way you can invite anything meaningful into your life. And it’s less painful than stagnating and never achieving your goals or forming close relationships.

See also: Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway