The week in words #16

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It has been the kind of week I would euphemistically call a challenge.

On Tuesday, my mental health took a nosedive. Everything good I’d ever thought about myself, anything good anyone’s ever said about me, fell off me like snow off a tree, revealing the truth underneath: that I am nothing and nobody, have achieved nothing, will achieve nothing, and am nearly 30 years old so it’s too late anyway. I went to work, where I stared at my screen waiting for the day to end. There was no point to anything I was doing. I’d fucked it all up anyway, so why keep trying?

By Wednesday, a calm hopelessness had settled over me. When I went into a clothes shop for some retail therapy, it quickly became clear that there was no dress or shirt that could make me feel better. You know those days when you dislike yourself one hundred percent, head to toe, inside and out?

The week went on like this until Saturday brought sad news, and I spent the day listening to music and feeling numb. When these phases come around, I try to remind myself that nothing lasts and everything changes. It makes these days and weeks feel less like endless misery and more like a particularly rough part of the journey.

On Thursday, I made a list of all the things I didn’t like about myself – all the things that take up space in my head, things I am annoyed or bothered by, when I could be focussing on more productive topics. I prioritised the list, and set deadlines to fix those things. My hair is now so short I can stop being annoyed with all the ways it doesn’t behave. We’ll see what else I can make progress on soon.

I write this sitting in our garden as my flatmate makes a horribly greasy breakfast; the air smells of flowers and bacon. Bees are hovering. I have two more workdays left before I go home.

The week in words #12 – On gratitude and limitations

One of my favourite pages in It's All Absolutely Fine by Ruby Elliot

A bit over three weeks ago I downloaded a gratitude app. Every night at 9.30pm, it reminds me to note down three things about my day that I’m grateful for. Gratitude is said to improve mental and physical health, sleep, relationships and life in general, so it felt like something I should get on board with. (Brené Brown recommends finding something to be grateful to counter moments of shame and anxiety, which I can vouch for.) And I don't know if it’s the app and the daily practice, or if it’s just how life is currently going, but more and more often these days I stop and think, Damn. This is nice.

One of the things I’m grateful for these days is the energy I have. The dark months are coming to an end, and with the daylight has come headspace; my mind suddenly feels free to think and reflect and plan.

It can be difficult for those of us who deal with depression and other mental health problems. So often, we spend all our energy on coping; just existing. Weeks and months can go by like that. And it’s easy to beat ourselves up over not being productive, especially once the fog clears and we realise what we can be capable of, on good days.

I’m learning to be okay with my limitations. I’ve often looked at other people my age and the things they have achieved — companies started, money earned, awards won, partners married — and felt angry with myself. Why haven’t I been able to do that? And the answer is, I was busy with other things. I was busy not giving up on myself. For many years, that was my main task. (Other life things happen, too. I lost two years between 16 and 18 because of wrong epilepsy medication that turned me into a walking vegetable. I was a fiction writer before that, and over ten years later I still haven’t remotely recovered the level of passion and commitment I once had.)

My mental health journey often reminds me of the Sisyphus myth — the Greek king who is forced by the gods to push an enormous boulder up a hill, only for the boulder to roll back down as soon as it nears the top of the hill. ‘Sisyphusarbeit’ (Sisyphean work) is a common term where I come from for a task that's both laborious and futile, and often my head feels like that.

My point is, if someone is busy pushing a boulder three times their size up a hill, you can’t expect them to wave at you. Or, Susan Sontag: ‘It’s hard to talk while one is gritting one’s teeth.’

We’ve been brought up to only see work where there are impressive results. But those of us who deal with mental health problems, physical illness, or disability, or any other kind of obstacle we didn’t choose: we too work really fucking hard, sometimes just to get through the day.

None of this is a new concept; but it’s different when applied to oneself, at least for me. It’s really, really difficult to admit my own limitations. It’s difficult to admit that some days I just won’t be able to work on a passion project. Some days I won’t even be able to do the work I get paid for. And other days, I’m not able to go to the pub with my coworkers or community group friends, because my battery is drained and I can’t be the person they need me to be.

If I’m learning to be grateful for the good days, then that comes with accepting that the bad days/weeks/months/years happen, too.

The week in words #9

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So, March had a bit of a wet start. The UK was visited by the Beast from the East this week, causing chaos all over the country. I was one of the lucky Londoners who only had to worry about their public transport to work, which I think is fine given that others in the country found themselves stranded on motorways or without electricity.

In my case, the cold ate through the brick wall of my house and since last night I have been watching a wet patch spread over my ceiling, praying the water won't seep through. A few days ago I had to walk through the snow to work, and since my shoes are still relatively new, I'm once again out of half-marathon training with foot pain.

It's not all bad. I saw some friends, saw some friends perform in a play, found a lovely new podcast to listen to, and really got to enjoy the snow a couple of times. I love the way falling snow swallows sound, so being able to walk through these little pockets of near-silence in noisy London was downright magical.

This week, on 1st March, was Self Injury Awareness Day. I'd meant to write something about it, but couldn't get my thoughts in order in time. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan did, and her take on it is worth a read. Self-harm isn't something that's easy to talk openly about; it's a very violent coping mechanism that many don't understand, and I've often found reactions to be more curious than compassionate: people seem way more interested in the how than the why.

Self injury is a coping mechanism just like drinking, smoking, loud music, running or yoga. It's not a good or healthy one, but in the moment it's used, it fulfils a function. It's a symptom, not the problem itself. Buchanan's piece explains this in further detail, so I won't repeat it. But her conclusion is worth repeating: look for the why. Ask why, and listen.

Always listen.

The week in words #6

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This week has been a bitch.

On Monday morning I woke up and, somewhere around 7am, my mental health took a dive off a cliff. I was more or less successful in dealing with it over the course of the week, but overall it's been a difficult one.

I haven't been sleeping well since I got my tattoo, out of fear I might do something to it in my sleep. Once or twice, when it was still healing, I woke myself up scratching it. I'd wake up from the pain, put both my hands behind my back and lie staring at the ceiling, wide awake and terrified I'd messed up this very visible part of my body beyond repair.

On Saturday morning, I had a bad dream. (It took place in a café, as bad dreams do.) Just as the situation in the dream was about to escalate beyond the point of no return, I woke up. It was 5:20am. I sat up, wrote down some notes and went to a 7am yoga class, my first exercise since getting the tattoo. This Sunday morning, I went running again.

My arm is fine. Most of me is. The worst seems to have gone through my system and I intend to sweat it out with exercise, like a cold.

Next week will be better.

Let's talk about not being okay (yes, really) – #TimeToTalk

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We were driving, and it must have been in Germany because I was looking out of the right-side window. Most likely we were on our way to an airport, where my dad likes to drop me off, and I let him because we have our best conversations on drives to and from airports. And our best silences.

I was worried about something, and I bet I had just finished a long monologue about all the things I wasn't coping with. Exhausted, I watched fields and trees pass by outside in a dark green blur. 'Does it ever get easier?' I asked. 'Being a grown-up?'

A burst of laughter escaped my dad. And that was that.

Some years later, I decided to read up on a diagnosis a few mental health professionals had offered me. I'd rejected it back then, but things hadn't gotten better, so I ordered a book with the term "Survival Guide" in the title, because that sounded non-judgmental and hands-on. About halfway through, I came across the paragraph that changed things:

The important thing, it said, was this: the thoughts will always be there. I would always experience feelings of worthlessness, emptiness and hopelessness. What I would be able to change was my reaction to these thoughts. I could continue to act on them, or I could learn to treat them as background noise. But I was not to consider myself a failure if I continued to experience negative emotions, because those are a part of life.

These two stories have nothing to do with each other. What they have in common is my immediate reaction in those moments: that feeling of being released. That intense feeling of being released from the pressure to be something impossible.

Because we're not meant to have our shit together 100% of the time.

We live in a time of constant self-improvement and self-optimisation. We create highlight reels of our lives on social media, and there is a danger of wanting to do that in daily life as well. After all, we're grown-ups, right? We should have it figured out! Everybody else seems okay all the time, so I should be okay all the time!

But being a grown-up doesn't mean that life's struggles don't touch you. Being emotionally healthy doesn't mean never having a single negative thought. We're all human, we're all fallible, and we make mistakes and we stumble, and sometimes we fall.

Today is Time To Talk Day, an initiative created by Time to Change, a movement that aims to end mental health discrimination. The goal is to remove the taboo from the topic of mental health and turn it into an everyday conversation topic.

On days like today, Facebook and Twitter are full of posts like 'If you're struggling, let me know! You can always talk to me!'
These posts annoy me to no end, because they put the responsibility on someone who likely already has enough to deal with and doesn't have the energy left to seek you out for an uncomfortable conversation. Secondly, how can we talk about some hard-hitting stuff like mental health issues when we can barely talk about the day-to-day struggles, because replying anything other than 'I'm good!' to someone's 'How are you?' feels like a social faux pas?

Struggle is a part of being human. Why don't we talk about it?

I'm not talking about dumping our problems on others – I'm talking about sharing. About acknowledging that we are just people and that we can't always be happy. I do my best to be positive as often as I can, but the fact is that my brain is wired in a way that causes me to believe that I'm a flaming pile of trash with glasses. On days when that belief is loud and heavy and takes all my energy to carry it through the day, I just want to be able to say 'Not so great today. How are you?'

We don't need to turn everything into an Issue that requires tea and A Conversation. I simply want to stop using my spoons on little white lies just to avoid making someone feel uncomfortable with my humanity.

You are allowed to be not 'fine'. Negative emotions are a part of life, and not acknowledging them in ourselves and others is to deny a large part of our shared human experience.

Please let's all be kind to each other. Be open to really hearing about what's going on in other people's lives. You don't have to carry it for them. You have to acknowledge it, and see it, like you want others to see you.

It'll make us all feel less alone.

And if you don't believe me, listen to Susan David: