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!
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!
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.
I have spent four months in”maintenance mode” and I’m sick of it. While it was necessary to cope with the pain of my gallstones, especially for the three months when I didn’t know what was wrong, I felt as if my life was on hold and my mental health was suffering. The gallstones seem to have calmed down: I still have the baseline pain and constant nausea, but I’m learning to handle it and the really bad episodes have become less frequent. Combined with the frustration of feeling stuck, I decided it’s time to refocus on my goals.
Top of my list is getting back to losing weight. It feels strange to admit, because I struggled with an eating disorder for many years, but the past few months have taught me that health is valuable and shouldn’t be taken for granted. I already knew that, but life has a way of re-teaching the lessons we need to learn and in this instance, the lesson was about physical health. I want to lose weight primarily to reduce my risk of heart disease and diabetes. My dad has both of these conditions and recently had a heart attack and double bypass. I don’t want that to be in my future, so I’m trying to avoid it by taking control of the factors I can influence: being a healthy weight, staying fit and eating well.
Exercising is also a priority, mainly because it’s the most effective way of managing my mental health. My doctor has encouraged me to stay as active as I can, because it will help me recover faster when I have surgery to remove my gallbladder. Knowing I can exercise without causing damage is a huge relief, especially after exercising caution when I didn’t know what was wrong, and I feel better when I exercise more often. My anxiety is easier to control and I feel less depressed. I also feel better physically, in a way which is hard to describe: generally fitter and stronger. Like I can handle anything that comes my way.
I’m slowly beginning to piece my life back together and have begun challenging myself a little… One of my mini-goals for this year is to be more confident when driving and I recently drove on my own for the first time in approximately two years. It feels strange to admit, because I passed my test nearly nine and a half years ago, but driving became a source of anxiety for me and it was easier to avoid it than to suffer. And that’s okay. I may feel a bit ridiculous for being unable to drive for such a long period, but I think it’s something I needed to do.
The past four months have been a reminder to take care of myself and switch to “maintenance mode” when I need to, but they have also taught me not to let problems stand in my way. It might be a while before my gallstones get sorted out, so it’s another burden I have to carry, but I’m pretty damn strong. I can take the weight and keep pushing onwards and upwards.
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…
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.