My mental health has always been variable, but at the moment it feels particularly erratic. In some ways this is a positive sign: during my worst and most prolonged episodes of depression and anxiety, there was no variation because I felt terrible all the time. However, coping with dramatic changes of mood is difficult and exhausting. It’s also difficult to explain to others – I don’t know why I can feel reasonably positive in the morning and then wallow in the depths of despair that same afternoon. Neither do I know why I feel more anxious about specific issues some days more than others. Sometimes there are triggers I can identify, but often it’s as much a mystery to me as anyone else.
Unfortunately, living in lockdown means I can’t do anything about some of the triggers I’m able to identify. Losing the structure of my regular gym classes is a particular challenge, because I struggle to create routines on my own; going to classes works well for me precisely because I know it’s happening with or without me and I will regret not attending (unless I have good reasons). Determining my own schedule means it’s easy to make excuses and put off exercise sessions. Thank goodness I have a dog who needs to be walked every day – otherwise I’m not sure how well I would maintain even a minimal level of exercise.
It’s common for people who have borderline personality disorder to have strong emotional and cognitive reactions to events. External validation boosts my mood and reinforces my confidence. This can be problematic, especially since nobody can rely on receiving external validation on a frequent basis, but despite working to bolster my intrinsic motivation and internal validation, external encouragement or approval still has a strong hold over me.
I have received a considerable amount of external validation over recent weeks. I got my results for the 30 credit sport and exercise psychology module I completed in early March: I was awarded a Distinction. While getting high marks is always encouraging, I was glad to do well in this particular module because studying expanded and developed my interest in exercise psychology. Many of the students were “sporty” types who casually mentioned backgrounds as professional or semi-professional athletes; the module is studied by a lot of people pursuing degrees in sports science, so I felt out of place. I think there were two other women who, like me, turned to exercise to help manage their mental health.
I gather I’m in the minority, as someone who is primarily interested in exercise psychology and working with people who aren’t elite athletes, so I was apprehensive about enrolling on a 60 credit level 3 module on the psychological aspects of athletic development for October this year. However, I was more interested in that module than the other options available and the description reassured me that despite the focus on sport psychology, a significant proportion of the content also applies to exercise psychology. Telling myself I didn’t fit in because I’m not sporty was a cop-out and a flimsy excuse, so I made the decision shortly after submitting my end of module assessment. I was scared, but the good kind of scared which means I’m pursuing a goal which is important to me. Getting a good result feels like a sign I’m on the right track.
I also did well on my final two assignments for my core psychology module, which means I should get a good module result – there was supposed to be an exam in June, but it was cancelled because of the pandemic. When I decided to study for a Psychology BSc, I felt stretched between my desire to pursue the subject and nagging self-doubt which told me I was crazy, stupid and incapable. I have now completed three of the five years I anticipate taking to finish the degree and… I feel exactly the same. Except for those moments when I get good feedback or feel so incredibly inspired by a topic that I would love to spend the rest of my life learning more. Such moments give me the confidence to challenge self-doubt and dare to dream of future possibilities.
The nature of blogging about my mental health means that if I’m able to write a post, I’m doing reasonably well. The past couple of months have been very dark at times, but when I rise out of the gloom I’m grateful for the good things in my life. One of the advantages of lockdown is how it highlights the people and activities which contribute most to my wellbeing. I’m starting to reconnect with important goals which have fallen by the wayside during the stress and turmoil of the past two years and have a list of things I would like to do more when lockdown/social distancing allows.
The pandemic has also highlighted something which I already knew, but tend to forget in practice: act on your goals as soon as you can, even if it seems foolish, inconvenient or pointless. When something is important to you, prioritise it. Now.
Lockdown is difficult for everyone. There is a lot of discussion online about who has it worse, but there is little to be gained by such comparisons –– yes, there are probably lots of people suffering more than you, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t suffering. Your feelings are valid.
I have been struggling a lot and trying to ignore it, because I feel guilty. I’m not working long hours caring for Covid-19 victims in hospital. Nobody in my family or small circle of friends has died. My household’s financial situation hasn’t gotten worse. I live with my parents and three adorable (mostly!) pets in a house with a small garden. In theory, I should be able to function as normal, since I work and study from home. I’m incredibly lucky. But I also have mental health problems which can convince me, even at the best of times, that my life isn’t worth living and I’m a terrible burden on the people who care about me.
I’m aware that this may sound melodramatic to some people –– especially those fortunate enough not to have experienced mental illness –– but it’s my reality. Knowing I’m in no immediate danger doesn’t stop me having panic attacks. Appreciating the good things in my life won’t always stop me from sinking into dark periods of depression. After spending a couple of weeks trying to bottle up my symptoms, they have started to leak out.
Mental health issues are difficult to manage in the best of circumstances and under lockdown, it can sometimes feel as if everything has been deigned to aggravate my symptoms. Social media has always been full of people living their lives better than me, but now it’s full of people who are doing lockdown better than me. I’m used to spending most of my life at home, thanks to my mental health problems, but I’m struggling to keep doing the things I usually do. Writing, studying and reading have become more challenging. I have failed to maintain a lot of my mental health strategies, including running on the treadmill and meditation. Instead of making healthy lunches, I find myself munching crisps.
Lockdown reminds me of my worst periods of depression and anxiety, when I often went for weeks without leaving the house. While I’m still walking the dogs every day, I no longer help my mum with the weekly shop or go to gym classes. My social contact has gone from low to almost zero. There are glimpses of hope which remind me I haven’t returned to those darkest days, which helps a lot. For example, we had our first Exeter Writers meeting via Zoom on Saturday and it was wonderful –– I feel as though a small but significant piece of my life has been salvaged. I also feel a little less stressed about my studies, because I found out my cancelled exam won’t be replaced by a different assessment, so my overall module mark will be based on my assignments and it won’t affect my degree’s BPS accreditation. I suppose, like everyone else, I’m slowly adjusting to the New Normal.
However, I have a lot of anxiety about whether I will be able to cope when I can return to my usual activities. I have social anxiety, in addition to generalised anxiety disorder, so I find it difficult to return to kettlebells classes after missing a few sessions; I can only imagine (and dread) how I might feel after the gym has been closed for weeks or months on end. I don’t know whether I will be able to cope with being amongst lots of strangers in the supermarket, which is challenging enough on my good days. I know it’s pointless to worry when I don’t know how long it will be before I’m allowed to do these things again, but I feel as if I’m being pushed deeper into the murky waters of my mental illness.
I’m trying to cling to the things which I can do, especially those which help me feel better, but it’s difficult. Often, the things which cheer me up seem stupid and trivial, especially when I think about the tasks I should be focusing on –– painting my nails bright pink seems ridiculous when I need to catch up with my studies and actually finish some of the stories I have started. Although, to be fair, painting my nails doesn’t require much time, energy or concentration.
A lot of people are turning to distractions under lockdown. Baking bread, completing DIY projects and cleaning/decluttering have become clichés because they are comforting: they require enough attention to provide distraction, are undeniably practical and loaded with symbolic meaning (putting your house in order, providing your household’s daily bread, etc). I have done my share of using up yeast and bread flour bought ages ago, with variable results… today’s loaf is a strange shape but tastes great, whereas last week’s attempt looked like a flattened brick and didn’t taste much better! These practical pursuits create a sense of achievement and satisfaction (when they turn out right!), which is an excellent return on the investment of time and effort compared to the less tangible rewards of my priorities.
Taking the time to bake bread has reminded me of the importance of taking time out –– just as the dough needs to rest and prove after kneading, I need to relax after intense periods of activity. My definition of ‘intense period of activity’ needs to encapsulate anything which requires a lot of effort, including tasks which may be easy at other times. My mental health problems can fluctuate a lot, so beating myself up for not being as productive as I am on my best days is unhelpful. Some days I can only do the bare minimum needed to get through the day –– and that’s okay.
It’s easy to feel intimidated by how other people say they are handling lockdown, but even if their claims of rigorous exercise regimes, learning new languages, volunteering in the community, growing vegetables, writing novels and knitting several jumpers (all within the first fortnight!) are accurate, it doesn’t mean everybody can do the same. For each person who says they are excelling, I suspect there are several people who feel as though they are barely surviving, let alone thriving. We are all doing what we can, as best we can.
I’m trying to find some balance, rather than pressuring myself to be super productive. After an intense week of struggling to meet an assignment deadline, I have tried to give myself a break over the past couple of days and take small steps towards my goals. One of my coping strategies is to put self-care tasks and fun activities on my to-do list, so that completing them feels like a small achievement. Hence I have pink nails and fresh bread for lunch.
To echo pretty much everyone, these are strange times. On the one hand, social distancing measures necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic make relatively little difference to my lifestyle, because having chronic mental health problems means I work from home most of the time and avoid socialising because my anxiety (and finances) make it difficult. On the other hand, I’m not used to everyone else being anxious and one of the symptoms of borderline personality disorder is a tendency to absorb other people’s moods, especially negative moods. I’m veering between feeling ‘normal’ because my mental health problems have become more normalised and sinking into pits of depression/anxiety/stress. Part of me wants to wail ‘I had so little in my life and now it’s been taken away’ but I read something on social media which resonated with me: now most people are experiencing a lot of anxiety, it’s time for those of us who have anxiety disorders to teach them how to manage it.
A mini disclaimer here: these are things which help me and may be inappropriate and/or inaccessible for some people. I’m not a mental health professional and this blog is based on my personal experiences, combined with things I have read or heard about helping others. It’s also worth bearing in mind that because there has never been a situation like this in living memory, there is a lot of uncertainty about what might help individuals manage their mental health and wellbeing. As this blog testifies, mental health management involves a lot of trial and error to discover what works for you. If you are in crisis and need help, please contact Samaritans or another appropriate source of help.
Here are some ways to try and find some perspective when you are anxious during a pandemic…
I have a theory that difficult circumstances amplify people’s true natures. It’s not very scientific, but I keep seeing evidence of kind and generous people making efforts to be more kind and generous, whilst selfish bastards behave in increasingly selfish ways. Perhaps the people who display selfish behaviour have their reasons and I know I should try not to judge, but as someone who has spent time in hospital as a day patient and a visitor to an inpatient over the past 18 months, I have seen how under-resourced and pressured the NHS is at the best of times and I don’t understand why anyone would refuse to follow guidelines designed to minimise the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the NHS. (Side note: If this is you, please change your behaviour and follow the guidelines because you are harming other people). However, I have also been heartened by people offering to help and support others. NHS and retail staff risking their health to do their jobs, often facing abuse from the people they are helping. People stepping up to help their communities, forming emergency groups to help those in need. Friends reassuring each other through social media. Professionals providing online resources and live-streaming everything from exercise sessions to church services.
Finding positives is hard enough in itself, so I won’t tell you to focus on the positives (although, obviously, do focus on them if you can!), but please look for some positive things in each day. I’m making an effort to practice gratitude, because I’m lucky to have a home to self-isolate in and to have the NHS. Practicing gratitude in hard times can be difficult, especially when it’s difficult to accept our current circumstances, but it can help. My personal positives include: having a sunny bedroom (thanks to my brother moving out last year!), my dog (and my mum’s dog and cat), the masses of books I have available to read, my treadmill (which I bought 9 years ago because I was incredibly unfit and too scared to leave the house alone), chatting to friends via social media, gorgeous scented candles given to me by good friends, studying Psychology with the Open University and having my brother and his girlfriend drop off a few groceries yesterday, since my parents and I are self-isolating after getting coughs last Tuesday (we’re all fine and recovering).
I attended a workshop a few weeks ago which highlighted movement as an antidote to anxiety and depression. As someone who manages my mental health through exercise, among other strategies, this is a familiar concept but something clicked when the workshop leader talked about figurative forms of movement alongside physical activities. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that many of the most effective ways of managing my mental health involve movement. Since exercise is an obvious option, I will focus on the more metaphorical types of movement.
Goal-setting is the most obvious example –– I tend to cope better when I am working towards a goal and making tangible progress. It helps me feel as though I’m moving in the right direction, even if I get frustrated about how slow my progress seems. Having goals is also important to me because during my worst episodes of depression, I don’t have any goals. I lose all desire and motivation. Compared to those times, it’s better to have some goals; often they are goals which seem ridiculously small and/or impossible, but they are goals. If self-isolation and/or social distancing is causing you to feel stuck, think about goals you could put in place and work towards right now, in your own home. These might be ambitious, but smaller goals are often most effective at navigating your way through a tough time. I have used such goals many times: cooking an actual meal instead of grabbing crisps, taking a shower, simply listening to music for 10 minutes, texting a friend, etc. Your goals need to fit your current situation to be helpful.
Connected to goal-setting is planning for the future. When you are able to plan, even if these plans are nebulous and unspecific, you create the sense of a future –– and there will be a future, no matter how improbable that feels, because that’s the nature of time. This too shall pass. Everything will pass. My plans range from huge, scary, life-changing possibilities to tiny, mundane ideas about what I would like to do. For example, I may plan to read a particular book when I finish my current reading material. Life feels extremely chaotic at present, so planning things to do in the immediate future can help create some structure. For instance, I plan to replace my gym classes with strength workouts at home. Planning events and activities for after the pandemic is over can give you a sense of perspective by acknowledging that this too will pass and when it does, perhaps you would like to live your life differently or achieve goals which you have put off.
Decluttering is something I have mentioned a lot in blog posts and for good reason: it creates a sense of movement by transforming your space and can sometimes change the way you live. I started making a conscious effort to declutter several years ago. Until that point, I had been a ‘more is more’ kind of person and since compulsive overspending was a massive issue at that point in my life, my home was crammed with lots of stuff. Eventually, I reached the point where I felt trapped by my stuff –– I could hardly move around my bedroom and I felt sick when I thought about how much it had cost. I started by getting rid of things I no longer used, including the desk at which I had studied throughout my Film Studies degree but never used for writing and box files of old magazines I rarely unboxed. Decluttering can be confronting, especially after several cycles, but it has left me with more physical space and headspace. I’m probably never going to be a minimalist, but most of my possessions are now things I use and/or like and I’m more mindful in my spending. It’s hard to describe, but decluttering helps me feel more free.
Reassess your priorities
Extreme situations tend to make us reevaluate our lives, whether it’s a personal crisis, bereavement or a pandemic. A lesson I have learnt over and over again, especially in the past few years, is that health must be my top priority. Our health (physical and mental, which are inextricably combined anyway) affects everything else in our lives. After spending a week feeling crap because of pandemic anxieties and having a virus myself (no idea if it is COVID-19, but I had a new cough so I’m following the NHS/government guidelines), I’m trying to establish/reestablish some healthy habits –– especially eating more healthily and getting back into an exercise routine. I have also been trying to get into the habit of meditating for 12 minutes a day –– I started a few weeks ago and it seemed to help, but last week’s practice was sporadic –– and I’m aiming to do more journalling, to help my mental health. If this pandemic teaches us anything as a society, please let it be to take more responsibility for our health, individually and collectively, and support each other.
Being worried about family and friends has demonstrated that I’m not an antisocial misanthrope, despite sometimes feeling like one. I care about people. I suppose this is something I already knew, but it reaffirms the priority and when this is over, I would like to do more with my friends. I have often shied away from socialising because my only dependable income is £95 a week in benefits, thanks to my ability to work being impaired by mental illness, and I owe my parents a lot of money. However, now I’m thinking I should have taken more of those opportunities to go out and socialise.
I have also been reminded of how important my Psychology degree is to me, because learning that my exam has been cancelled and not having been informed (yet) about the alternative assessment being put in place has caused a lot of stress. The exam is one of the requirements for the degree being BPS (British Psychological Society) accredited and while it has been pointed out that all universities are in the same position, nobody has actually stated that the BPS accreditation will not be affected. I don’t want to say too much, but I’m considering a career path which involves needing a BPS accredited degree to move on to the next step, so it’s hard not to catastrophise and imagine all my plans going down the drain. I know that’s unlikely to happen and there will be a way to figure out a solution, but anxiety isn’t logical.
Similarly, despite having issues with my writing mojo over the past year, writing (particularly fiction) is still one of my priorities. Interwoven with this is my love of reading, which is providing some distraction and a little inspiration. If I were to die soon, I would regret not having completed a novel I’m truly proud of, regardless of whether it’s published. Other regrets which I hope to guide me in future include wasting too much time on people who take far more than they give back, not standing up for myself more, spending money on things which gave me relatively little pleasure and not travelling more. Think about what you are missing right now and what you are most worried about –– are these concerns reflected in the way you usually live your life?
Kindness is vital during difficult times and we need to prioritise being kind to both ourselves and others. Do what you can –– don’t beat yourself up because so-and-so on social media is coping so well and you’re a hot mess. We all have different experiences and resources, so we cope in different ways. Anxiety tends to fluctuate, so most of us have both wobbly moments and moments when we excel at coping and can support and empower others. Try not to compare yourself to others (I’m a massive hypocrite on this point!), because it’s not a competition.
Help others if you can, but don’t feel bad if you are struggling to keep it together and it takes all your effort to keep going through the day. As wonderful as it is to see people doing grand things to support others, sometimes a small gesture can make a big difference. Text a friend to remind them they are awesome. Spend a few minutes dancing to your favourite happy song. Share a helpful website link on social media. Try to be a positive force in the world, but remember that when you are struggling there’s no shame in giving yourself a break.
The bottom line: if you can do nothing else, the essential thing you need to do to be kind to everyone, including yourself and your family, is to adhere to the current government guidelines on self-isolation and social distancing. Even if you do nothing more, that’s enough.
I had a strange experience a few weeks ago: I was thinking about potential career plans and found myself dismissing many possibilities because “I’m not that type” or “I’m not a people person.” Then something clicked inside my head and I realised that I would have said the same about numerous aspects of my current life. If you had told me 10 or 15 years ago that I would be a vegan who enjoys running, I would have laughed. If you had told me the same thing 8 years ago, when walking for longer than a few minutes was a struggle, I would have thought you were making a cruel joke. Yet there I was, willing to limit my future based on assumptions I make about my current abilities.
The more I contemplated this, the more I realised how often I had made similar statements about:
Things I do now, on a regular basis
Things I have done in the past
Things I consider an integral part of my lifestyle
Things I consider an integral part of my identity
When I started to examine my bald claims about not being a certain type of person, I realised a lot of my assumptions are simply untrue. For example, when I say “I’m not a people person” I’m thinking about the label “people person” in a stereotyped way. To be specific, it conjured images of people who are super-confident in social situations, who are outspoken extroverts who never get intimidated by other people. I was chatting about this with my friend Kat and she said 10 words which made me pause:
“Perhaps your idea of a ‘people person’ needs to change.”
I’m not a complete misanthrope, so I realised I’m probably more of a “people person” than I believe. I started to think about what the term could mean for me, as an individual, in relation to my skills and qualities.
This is the result:
Caring about people’s mental health and helping them to improve it
Listening to people’s experiences and concerns, trying to understand their perspective
Empathising with people in a variety of situations
Communicating with people through writing and blogging
Sharing my own experiences with the hope of inspiring or reassuring people
Learning about other people, cultures, interests and experiences
Spending time with people in small groups or on a one-to-one basis
Expanding my definition is helping me to think about my options in a more complex (and helpful) way, instead of dismissing entire career sectors. I will probably have to work on reducing my social anxiety and learning better verbal communication skills if I choose a career which involves working closely with people, but considering the specific changes I might need to make is more productive than refusing to explore my options because I don’t like parties or crowds.
Looking beyond stereotypes and changing or adapting definitions to suit my own situation is something I have already done, to an extent: I’m a runner, because I run, but I certainly don’t fit the competitive stereotype who enters marathons all the time and sneers at people who don’t run. Entering races on a regular basis isn’t something which interests me at this point in my life (although I keep an open mind to the possibility of that changing) and the only person I compete with is myself. Similarly, people who write should call themselves writers –– regardless of whether they have been published or paid for writing –– because that’s what they do. What we do.
However, just as I find myself saying “I want to be a writer” from time to time, especially when my confidence is low, I suspect I will forget to check my new definitions. It’s difficult to start consciously thinking of myself in different ways, especially when challenging assumptions and labels which have shaped my identity for many years. I think the key is to stop myself when I notice I’m using phrases such as “I’m not the type to do X” or “I’m not an X person” as an excuse not to explore something which piques my interest. Even if I decide the option isn’t for me, I will have made that decision based on solid research, not false assumptions.
In future, I’m going to try not to limit myself –– just as there’s more than one way to be a runner or a writer, there are many ways to be a “people person.” Or anything else I might want to be.
When I created this blog and called it Resurfacing and Rewriting, I thought the name would represent a clear journey: my mental health was improving and I was learning to cope with being well enough to work towards some of my goals, but not well enough to function ‘normally’. I never expected this journey to be linear and was certainly prepared for setbacks, but I didn’t realise that managing my mental health and attempting to chase my dreams would take the form of numerous cycles. These cycles have varied in duration, how difficult they are to endure and their impact on my life.
I’m currently resurfacing after a particularly difficult cycle, which was caused by having very painful gallstones for 15 months. Living in pain takes its toll on your mental health, regardless of whether you have a pre-existing mental health condition. I’m lucky that my pain was temporary, since I had my gallbladder removed just over a month ago, but I struggled to explain the pervasive and unrelenting nature of my pain to other people. I would say ‘I’m in constant pain’ and some people would interpret this as meaning I had frequent episodes of pain, whereas my reality was significant baseline pain 24/7 and frequent episodes of worse pain. I could sometimes distract myself from the pain, but it was always present.
Living with pain is depressing in its truest sense: I lost hope that my situation would improve and lost motivation to try. My feelings of helplessness and suicidal thoughts increased. I socialised less than usual (which is very little), because I found it difficult to focus on other people or having fun when I had my arms clamped around my stomach, trying to ease the pain a little. The only things which seemed to ease my pain were heat pads and lavender oil, which are difficult to use when outside your own home. My anxiety increased, because I had constant nausea and during my worst episodes I would collapse with pain and/or vomit so I was terrified of this happening when I was in public, especially if my mum wasn’t around to help and explain what was happening. I pushed on with my basic exercise routine and Open University studies simply because I knew failure to do so would make my mental health significantly worse.
After my surgery, the nausea disappeared straightaway and within a few weeks, my pain levels were lower than the baseline pain I had experienced with gallstones. I haven’t experienced any post-op pain which was equivalent to my worst episodes. The general anaesthetic didn’t affect me as badly as it did when I had eye surgery––rather than feeling as if I had the flu, this time I just felt tired and found it difficult to concentrate on anything for very long. These problems have eased over the past two weeks, so I feel alert and focused enough to get back to studying and writing. In fact, I feel pretty good and sometimes forget my core muscles are still a little sore… until I try to lift something too heavy or twist/reach in a strange way!
In many ways, 2019 feels like a write-off year. I failed to make progress in many of my goals and when I did achieve something, such as passing my Psychology modules, I felt I wasn’t making the most of the opportunity. My mental health declined after two years of improvement (on balance). Each step forward I took seemed to come at a great cost and was quickly reversed. I ended the year feeling battered and beaten, although knowing I would be starting 2020 without a gallbladder was a great source of hope.
So 2020 is about resurfacing and getting back to my priorities.
My goals for this year are mostly the same as last year, since I didn’t achieve them: increase my fitness and strength, reach my goal weight (made more challenging by gaining 25lbs from my lowest recent weight), save more money and complete a novel draft I actually like. These goals are specific and measurable, but I won’t bore you with the details! However, I also have two more nebulous goals… Firstly, I want to enjoy writing again and be guided by what I love to read and write, rather than what I think I should write or what seems more marketable. I have lost my writing mojo and although I completed some short stories last year, writing often felt like a chore and I lost confidence in most before submitting them anywhere. Secondly, I want to have more fun and surprise myself. I have no idea what form this will take, so I’m trying to keep an open mind and find out.
Since I’m recovering from surgery and still struggling with my mental health, I have decided to follow a few strategies when working towards my goals.
1. Reminding myself of my whys.
My core values are creativity, curiosity and compassion, so I try to use them as a compass. I want to write in order to connect with other people and promote empathy towards other people, especially those who experience mental health problems. I want my writing to be entertaining, informative and thought-provoking. I also hope it inspires other people to chase their dreams, especially if they feel held back by mental illness. My Psychology degree feeds my curiosity, but I would also like to use it to help other people––although I’m not yet sure how I will do this––and I hope it informs my blogging.
2. Easing in.
My instinct whenever I feel well enough to work towards my goals is to jump in and try to make up for lost time. This doesn’t work. Partly because it takes its toll on my energy and mental health, so I get ill and have to stop. I’m trying to get better at pacing myself this year, so I’m trying to ease back into working towards my goals where possible (university deadlines aren’t very flexible!) and build up momentum as I get stronger.
3. Seeking joy and inspiration.
This means appreciating the ‘small things’ in my everyday life and reading about people who inspire or motivate me to keep going. I’m trying to focus on the process of working towards my goals, rather than just the results, so I want to place more emphasis on enjoying activities for their own sake.
I hope 2020 will be a year of recovery and growth. While I have always valued health, especially since my worst years of depression and anxiety, my experience of gallstones has highlighted its importance even more––which is why losing weight and living a healthier lifestyle continues to be my top priority, alongside improving my mental health. I’m sure the ‘rewriting’ stage will come at some point, helping me reframe my experiences and view 2019 in a more positive light, but for now I’m resurfacing and coming back to my life.
One of the hardest aspects of long term mental health problems is spending a significant proportion of your life struggling with stuff which comes easily when you are at your best. Some things I may never find easy: crowds, dealing with inconsiderate people and talking to strangers will probably remain nerve-shattering experiences for the rest of my life. I’m not talking about pushing at the boundaries of my anxiety––I’m talking about mundane tasks which aren’t a challenge on days when my mental health is adequate, but become next to impossible when my symptoms increase.
Studying is the most obvious example which comes to mind. Usually, I can tackle reading and note-taking with no issues. Even on days when leaving the house seems insurmountable, I can do a little studying and feel as if I have done something worthwhile. However, common symptoms of depression (which I experience) include loss of concentration, lethargy and lack of motivation. There are some days when I take out my textbook and struggle to take in any information.
Last week, I spent four hours trying to write notes on a chapter of my psychology textbook. I had already covered the material, highlighting key points and making margin notes, yet I struggled to get anything down. After producing a few measly pages of notes (and my style of note-taking is loosely based on mind mapping, so there aren’t many words to each page), I gave up.
Years of negative thinking patterns have programmed my response to giving up: I beat myself up for being useless, lazy, worthless, stupid, incapable of basic functioning… you name it! What was the effect of this negative self-talk? Did I become more productive and sail through my to-do list? Er, no. I spent a few days feeling even worse than usual––which, considering I have chronic depression, is pretty bad.
My mood has shifted this week and there has been a positive effect on my productivity. With relatively little effort (compared to last week), I have completed most of the tasks on my high-priority to-do list. To put this in perspective, my average for the past couple of months has been completing approximately one third of my highest priorities each week and accomplishing little else. I’m delighted to be having a good week and try to ignore the voice in my head which tells me I don’t deserve to feel productive or that I need to get ahead now because, before long, something is bound to go wrong and mess things up. However, it’s hard to accept that there can be such a difference in the space of a single week.
I can’t control my symptoms on any given day. I repeat this often, because it’s a concept which a lot of people find difficult to understand. “You were fine the other week” they say, when I’m having a panic attack in the supermarket, or “You can write thousands of words some days, so why not every day?” But despite understanding the concept, I myself struggle to accept the reality.
Planning to have a “good day” when a deadline is looming or I have something special organised doesn’t work. I tell myself it’s important to finish this task ASAP because it will make me less stressed in the long run, but piling on the pressure just makes things worse. If I could plan all my bad days, it would be very convenient––I could choose to have them all during the summer, when I’m not studying, or dot them throughout the year and be prepared each week. Unfortunately, mental illness––and life––doesn’t work that way.
I’m learning (and relearning) to accept my bad days, because trying to fight them makes everything worse. Instead, the best strategy is to let go of my plans for the day and give myself what I need, whether that’s a run to boost my mood, resting to improve my wellbeing or reading to seek inspiration. Last week, once I had wasted a few days feeling terrible, I stepped up the self-care by feeding myself more nutritious meals and countering the negative thoughts using CBT techniques. I still didn’t feel amazing, but it was better than nothing.
I also realised my initial reaction to my improved mood and productivity this week wasn’t helpful: feeling angry and frustrated about feeling so awful last week was pointless. Instead, I could frame this week as a reminder that good days will always come again. They might take their sweet time in coming––sometimes months––and be too few when they do arrive, but they will come.
I hope these intense, prolonged struggles won’t be part of my life forever, but if they never go away then I need to accept them. Fighting them doesn’t work––it’s like trying to wrestle water. Moreover, if I do spend the rest of my life shackled by my mental health problems, I need to dredge my struggles and find something positive amongst the dross. I guess that’s what I attempt to do with this blog––thanks for reading!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m currently recovering from a terrible episode of gallstones pain — well, it was a few of my worst episodes strung together over a few days and the first really bad episodes I have had since February, so a shock to the system. To clarify what I mean by “bad”, it involves me writhing on the floor in agony. The day after the last bad episode, my pain was still intense enough that I couldn’t bear to move unless it was absolutely essential. However, the most frustrating part of the experience was that it’s my own fault.
Okay, I didn’t ask to have gallstones and it’s not my fault that the current NHS waiting lists are ridiculous, thanks to the government penalising consultants for working overtime, so I haven’t had my gallbladder out. Maybe I wouldn’t have developed gallstones if I had stayed a healthy weight all my life, but overeating was how I dealt with my mental illnesses and one of the few coping strategies which was accessible to me during the years when I was scared of leaving the house alone. However, my recent painful episode could have been avoided if I had paid more attention to what was happening.
Since mid-May, I have relaxed my diet. I still want to lose another 20-30lbs, but a few other things took priority and stress took over during the final 2 months of my temporary job. I wasn’t eating a huge amount, but I was eating crap: more refined sugar and processed foods, fewer vegetables. I should have listened to my body as my gallstones became “noisier” but I pushed on, focusing on work and eating junk to deal with the stress (old habits die hard).
Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago and I realised that not only was I experiencing the worst episodes of gallstones pain I’ve had in a while, but my mood had plummeted. I needed to take control of my health.
I also had a minor epiphany: when my gallstones pain and mental health were better than they had been in ages, in March and April, I had been following a diet which limited processed foods and cut out sugar. I was also eating a lot less wheat. Feeling desperate, I decided to go back to basics and cut out junk food, processed food, wheat and refined sugar as much as I could. The worst that could happen, I figured, was that it would make no difference to the pain and I would get better nutrition.
Thankfully, my change of diet was very effective. Within 4 days, I felt well enough to return to kettlebells class (taking it easy). Within a week, I was no longer taking painkillers. After 10 days, I no longer needed to constantly use heat pads and lavender oil to reduce the pain. In addition, my mood improved — which could be due to the psychological effects of feeling a little more in control, as well as the change in nutrition. Nothing miraculous has happened, but I’m back to baseline gallstone pain levels and my depression has eased enough for me to feel a little more human.
In addition to diet, I think my experience was impacted by other factors. When my temporary job ended in July and I found out I had passed my Open University modules, there was an easing of pressure. I was no longer pushing myself to keep going through pain, stress, anxiety and depression at any cost. I could stop. But when I stopped, I felt drained — especially emotionally. I’m pleased to have completed my work project and OU modules, but neither went according to plan and I’m disappointed that I wasn’t able to maximise my opportunities or enjoy them a little more. Now I could stop, I had to process all of these emotions.
Needing a lot of recovery time is something I have learnt to accept in theory, but it’s frustrating. It typically takes me a few days to recuperate from a day out, which most people find relaxing in itself, so I suppose I should have expected a period of lethargy when the challenges of studying and working drew to a close. Trouble is, I want to keep going! I feel as if I have wasted most of my life because mental illness has had such disabling effects over the years, so I think I should push on as much as possible when I feel able to do more. Perhaps the gallstones pain was a blessing, because it has reminded me to put my health (physical and mental) first and foremost.
So what does taking control mean for me?
Prioritising self-care is essential. I’m sticking with my dietary changes, since I feel so much better in such a short time, and I want to improve my fitness. Yesterday, I had a run on the treadmill for the first time in 3/4 weeks and realised how much I have missed its mood-boosting effects, so I want to work on running farther at my new, faster pace (I have been working on speed this year, after focusing on distance for last year’s half marathon). Taking the time to practice yoga and meditation is also a habit I want to establish over the summer.
The other side of self-care is about putting myself in a better position to achieve my goals. I’m not entirely sure what that will involve, because the first step is to reflect on my progress and decide what’s important to me right now. A summer reset, if you like, before I start my next OU modules in October.
Paradoxically, a huge part of taking control is accepting that I can’t control everything. As the mental health literature reiterates, you can’t control what happens to you — but you can control your response. I had hoped this year would propel me towards a better future, but instead of feeling confident about building on my knowledge, skills and experiences, I feel beaten up. I hope that taking plenty of time to rest and work on my health over the next month will help me feel stronger.
Whatever happens, I will try to remind myself I am making progress — even when it feels so slow that it might not count. I spent too long living life on pause when my mental health was at its worst, so I’m not going to let the gallstones do the same.
I recently read a book called How to Come Alive Again by Beth McColl, which has led to me thinking a lot about a subject which doesn’t get discussed often enough: the work involved in managing chronic mental illness. One of the book’s strengths is its acknowledgement that readers will have varying levels of functionality and these may fluctuate a lot, even over short periods of time, yet everyone has to work hard to try and maintain or improve their mental health. Some days, this means challenging ourselves and flying through a list of tasks. Other days, it means forcing ourselves to do basic tasks like drinking some water or getting out of bed. It’s all work.
A lot of people take this work for
granted. If you haven’t spent years struggling with your mental health, it may
be difficult to believe that simple activities are hard work for some of us.
You may not understand how taking a shower can sometimes seem like a gargantuan
challenge. You might wonder why people who have mental illnesses can’t just “pull
themselves together” and carry on like a “normal” person (a viewpoint I have,
unfortunately, encountered many times). But doing these things can be hard
work. Mental health problems can drain us of energy, motivation, self-belief
and a thousand other things which would enable us to cope better. Things which
many people don’t need to consider when tackling mundane tasks.
Working on yourself
Managing one’s mental health also
involves extra work, such as addressing complex issues and engaging in
activities which have a positive neurological and/or psychological effect. Last
week, some counsellors of my acquaintance were talking about their work and
mentioned that many clients expect counsellors to fix their lives for them.
Instead of embarking on counselling to work on their issues, they seek a quick
fix. As one of the counsellors said, “I can’t fix their lives for them. I’m not
I was fascinated by this
conversation, because I have received counselling at different points in my
life and had never approached it as a quick fix. In fact, the NHS counselling I
have received in the past is often criticised for being too brief to be
effective in the long term: six sessions, the first of which is an introduction
rather than a proper session. I went through two or three rounds of this with
different counsellors and it was a sticking-plaster solution which helped me
feel slightly better for a few weeks, only to deteriorate when I encountered
more challenges. I had been given neither the support nor the skills to
negotiate life as someone who has mental health problems. This started to
change when I was given a year of drama therapy, which enabled me to work
through a lot of personal issues.
I have also received longer-term
counselling (around nine or ten months) from a local charity in more recent years
and I was grateful to be given the opportunity to learn coping skills,
including how to be more supportive of myself. The counselling itself was hard
work, but putting what I have learnt into practice is an ongoing slog. I need
to learn to be more accountable to myself now I don’t have anyone to check I’ve
done my “homework” each week. Learning not to judge and criticise myself is
also a constant challenge—I worry I’m not pushing myself enough and accuse
myself of being lazy, even when I know I’m doing my best.
Tailoring your work to fit you
The work I do to manage my mental
health is very personal—not so much private, but adapted to my own needs and
preferences—and probably looks different to what many other people do. It has
been a long process of trial and error which is still ongoing. I have also
changed my approach at different points in my life, depending on what is most
effective at any specific time.
The biggest difference in my
approach over the past eight years is the prominence of exercise in managing my
mental health. I started walking on a treadmill, because I was too scared to
walk outside alone. My intention was to get a little fitter, because I had been
very inactive for a couple of years and my lack of fitness was beginning to
scare me. I had no idea it would lead to the decision to replace medication
with exercise and if I had started getting fit with that intention, I probably
would have been disappointed because it took around four years to reach the
point where I could consider reducing my antidepressants.
Medication is another thing people
consider a “quick fix” yet, like counsellors, antidepressants are not magic.
They rarely work instantly—it can take several weeks to see an improvement,
which is normal—and it may take some experimentation to find a variety and dosage
which works for you. However, even when I found antidepressants which helped
me, I didn’t experience the complete turnaround in mood expected by some
people: they simply took the edge off my depression, which meant I could do
more basic self-care tasks and work on improving my mental health.
All of these things seem so ordered when I write about them: counselling, medication, exercise and other coping strategies all organised into discrete boxes, all tracking a linear progression from “worse” to “better”. The reality is very different. My symptoms fluctuate a lot and the treatments I have used have been both effective and ineffective at different times.
I emphasise this point because
reading about other people’s mental health can create false impressions,
especially since many of us can’t write about our experiences during the worst
times so write with the benefit of hindsight. These paltry lines of writing represent
over fifteen years of struggle following my diagnosis of anxiety and
depression; especially during the eight years before I was diagnosed with BPD
(borderline personality disorder) and could finally make sense of the symptoms
which didn’t fit with anxiety and depression. I don’t think I could ever fully convey
my experience and while I can make sense of chunks in retrospect, other aspects
I will never understand.
It might be tempting to take some
things out of context and to make assumptions about the decisions I have made about
managing my mental health. For example, many people assume I disagree with anyone
using medication because I have stopped using it myself, whereas I actually
credit antidepressants with keeping me alive. Without medication, I would not
have been able to access therapy and counselling. I would not have started
exercising. I would not have been able to do a large proportion of the work I
need to do on a regular basis in order to maintain and (hopefully) improve my
So, what does this work involve?
My current mental health management
plan prioritises exercise: strength-based gym classes and dog walking
constitute its core, but I add running and yoga when I feel able. Exercise has
a strong impact on my hormones and neurochemicals, which is why I have found it
effective as a direct replacement for antidepressants (though not without its
drawbacks). I also find it very powerful psychologically, as feeling strong and
fit helps me feel more prepared for life’s challenges and I gain a sense of
achievement from every workout. Focusing
on strength and fitness means I approach exercise with a healthy attitude—it’s
not merely a way to control my weight through burning calories and I know that over-exercising
would risk injury without providing extra benefits for my mental health. My
exercise plan also gives my life structure, but without forcing me into a
strict routine which I would be unable to follow when my symptoms fluctuate.
Regular exercising makes it easier
to practice self-care, as it means I have to shower often. Basic hygiene may
seem simple and non-negotiable if you have never had depression, but showering
less often is one of the key signs I’m relapsing. Ditto with changing bedsheets
and wearing clean clothes. This might manifest in subtle ways—leaving it a few
days between showers but making the effort when you need to go out or be around
people—and may never progress beyond this point, but it can get worse. Sometimes
it can feel pointless to make the effort to shower, because your illness prevents
you from leaving the house. I have been in this position and yes, I might have
felt better if I had showered more often, but I was in a lot of emotional pain
and had no energy. Nowadays, self-care tasks piggyback on my exercise routine:
I shower more, so I change my sheets more and wear clean clothes more often. It
also helps me sleep better, which further improves my mental health.
A lot of the work I do to get/stay
well comes under the umbrella of “stress/anxiety management”, which is my way
of describing a variety of techniques I use to varying degrees. Goal-setting
and planning are key strategies for me, because they help me to focus and stay
vaguely motivated. I use breathing exercises when I feel particularly anxious,
including 7-11 breathing (inhale as you count to 7, exhale for 11) and box
breathing (in for a count of 4, hold for 4, exhale for 4, pause for 4 and
repeat as needed). Venting my current stresses on paper also helps me feel
better, especially if I can identify action points which could reduce or solve
the problem, and I sometimes use a few CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy)
techniques I have learnt over the years.
None of this work is easy,
especially when my symptoms worsen, but there are some areas with which I struggle
a lot. Nutrition is difficult because I’m prone to emotional eating and often
grab food which is convenient rather than healthy. My diet is generally
healthier than at any other point in my life, but I sometimes slip into
unhealthy habits—a situation which is not helped by my gallstones symptoms.
Perhaps I will be able to prioritise nutrition in future and do stuff like meal
prep and batch cooking every week, rather than intermittently, but it’s not
something I’m rocking at present and that’s okay—I try to do what I can and I
may fall short of my goals, but I’m doing my best.
Considering the macros along with the micros
Most of the work I have detailed is
done at the “micro” level: small tasks performed on a daily or weekly basis. This
type of work is what fills most of my days. When things are going well, it
helps me feel in control and gives me the ability to enjoy my life. Doing the “micro”
work also puts me in a better position to handle the “macro” work.
The “macro” work is the big
picture: what I want out of life, my long-term goals and mental health
management from a higher perspective. Again, this work is very personal. My
priorities are my writing career, inspiring other people with mental health
issues to chase their dreams, owning my own home (which seems impossible) and
having fun along the way. Your priorities may look very different. My current
priorities are different to the ones I have had in the past and will have in
the future—they are subject to change, but they emerged from my values and I
use them to guide me.
Keeping sight of the “macro” work can be extremely difficult when you have mental health problems. When you are struggling to get through each day, you can’t think about long-term goals. Yet, there’s a paradox: keeping my long-term goals in sight reminds me why it’s worth struggling through the days, why it’s important to keep working on self-care and the other “micro” work which helps me feel better. It gives my everyday life a sense of purpose.
I have learnt to revisit my “macro”
work on a regular basis (at least once a month) for this reason. It makes my
life meaningful and it makes the small steps I take each day meaningful. Do I
get frustrated when I seem no closer to achieving my long-term goals and pushing
through my daily wellness work feels like a massive challenge? Of course! I’m
human. I wish I didn’t have to deal with mental illness every single day of my
life, but it’s the material I’ve been given and I have to mould it as best I
can. Considering the “macro” work also reminds me to check for progress, no
matter how small, which I might overlook. For example, submitting a short story
or making an extra debt repayment. My progress may be slow and excruciating,
but it’s still progress.
You control your own work
Nobody can tell you what to
prioritise in order to manage your mental health—trial and error is the only
way to find out what works for you. It’s annoying when we would all prefer a
quick fix, but it’s the nature of mental illness. Just in case you need me to
point out the obvious, this also means you can’t dictate what other people
should be doing to improve their mental health. You don’t know their struggles.
It might be easy to judge from afar and when we find something which works for
us it’s tempting to evangelise, but we don’t know what will help other people. You
don’t get to decide what treatments and coping strategies someone else tries—they
You get to decide what you try and
how to determine whether it’s effective. For instance, you may find something
which helps you, but is too difficult to implement or access on a regular
basis. You need to consider the costs and benefits of different types of work. Some
of my current strategies would not have worked for me at other points in my
life. For example, I tried to exercise at many different times, but struggled
to create a routine—I could only establish some structure when I was well
enough to attend gym classes. I still get anxious when I go to gym classes, but
the benefits are worth this cost and if that changes, I would have to
reconsider my situation. Likewise, the CBT techniques I find helpful nowadays
were introduced to me in my NHS counselling sessions and didn’t help at the
time. It’s important to keep trying new—and old—things to find out what works
for you and your lifestyle right now.
I am not magic. I have to put a lot of work into managing my mental health and trying to get well. Sometimes I make progress, but other times I seem to regress and wonder why I bother making the effort. However, I’m learning that when I keep trying to do the work of wellness, moments of magic come into my life. Half an hour of feeling enthusiastic and joyous, rather than anxious, when I’m chatting with a friend. A moment of gratitude when a butterfly crosses my path. Three solid hours of working on a project which could turn into something. These fleeting moments might seem insignificant, but there have been times when I experienced nothing good or positive for weeks on end. Nowadays, if I remember to look, most days contain a little magic.
I submitted my final assignments for the Open University modules I’m studying this year well before the deadlines and I’m going to explain why I don’t consider this a Good Thing. The last two assignments are End of Module Assessments (EMAs) which are supposed to be analogous to exams, so there are no deadline extensions. Since my mental health is unpredictable and my current physical health even more so, I had to make contingency plans in case my mental health plummeted or I had bad gallstone attacks in the weeks before the deadline. It’s a coping strategy I wish I didn’t have to implement, but I have learnt that this degree of flexibility is necessary for me.
Preparing to be thrown off course by my mental health is an integral part of goal setting. In this case, I had to get ahead when I felt well and finish the previous two assignments, with deadlines in April, as soon as possible so I could focus on the EMAs. It was pretty intense, but ensured I had several weeks to work on the EMAs. Do I really need several weeks’ leeway? Absolutely. My health can easily become a huge issue without warning. My mental health can go into freefall and the scariest aspect is, sometimes several weeks wouldn’t have been enough leeway.
I was lucky this time around. My mental health has taken a downturn recently, but I could work around it.
What does “working around” my mental health mean?
Put simply, it means doing whatever I can, whenever I can. It’s how I live my life. Some days I can function like any other person and be very productive; some days I am unable to do anything other than slump on the couch, my mind whirring but producing nothing. Most days are a mixture.
Living with mental health problems is difficult, so I have had to devise coping strategies which work for me and help me to be more productive. These include:
Identifying my priorities at any given time. When mental illness limits the number of hours I have available to work (or do anything else), I need to know the best way to spend those hours.
Being super-organised. Depression and anxiety affect my memory, so I write everything down. I need to know my goals and break them down into tasks. I put these tasks on my to-do list, which is divided into high, medium and low priority tasks for each week. I also have a future to-do list, for tasks I can’t or don’t want to complete at the moment.
Being flexible. Because my mental health is unpredictable, scheduling tasks on specific days doesn’t work very well for me, so I try to avoid it unless it’s absolutely necessary. I sometimes allocate tasks to certain days, but I don’t beat myself up if I can’t stick to this plan.
I wish I didn’t have to use these coping strategies. I would love to be able to plan to work on my EMAs for a few weeks before the deadline, like most other people, but no possibility of an extension means I need to prepare for ill health.
This also applies to all other aspects of my life.
I’m sure some ignorant people assume I can do non-work tasks without making contingency plans and these are probably the same people who think mental illness is just an excuse to avoid work, but my mental health affects all aspects of my life. I have had to cancel countless enjoyable activities. For every night out I’ve had with friends, there were five I had to cancel at the last minute and hundreds I never planned because I knew I couldn’t handle it. When my mental health dips, I struggle to do anything, including leisure activities I can do at home, alone. During these periods, I can’t even read or concentrate on watching a film.
I used to feel incredibly ashamed of being forced to live this way. Many friends slipped away because they didn’t understand why I couldn’t go out like a “normal” person and often struggled to leave the house at all. They got bored with hanging out at each other’s homes when anxiety prevented me from going to the cinema or a café. However, as I get older, I’m learning to accept that this is the way it has to be. For now, at least. If so-called friends can’t accept my mental health problems, they can thank their lucky stars they’re not in the same situation and fuck off.
I wouldn’t have chosen this life of constant contingency planning, but I’m learning to make the best of it.
I’m getting better at controlling the things I can and letting go of whatever I can’t control. Better, but nowhere near perfect! I still get frustrated with myself, the universe and life in general, but I keep working towards my goals. My aim is simple: improvement. My life probably won’t change completely anytime soon, but most days are bearable and I’m proud of the goals I’ve achieved.
I can’t celebrate submitting my EMAs early, because I wish I didn’t have to rely so heavily on contingency plans, but I’m proud that I submitted them. Two years of my part-time Psychology BSc down, three (hopefully) to go!