I Have a Big Mind, So I Can Keep Dreaming

I have a very big mind. I don’t know if you can quantify the size of a mind seeing as it is abstract. What I mean when I say I have a big mind is that it wanders. I have high ambitions for myself, and sometimes believe in them. I think I’m going to become an award-winning author, a Nobel prize receiving nutritionist (has that ever even happened?). I’m going to run marathons and go on to running ultra’s. I want to play instruments and dance like Darcey Bussell

I don’t just want to do all of this stuff. I strive to do it all. However, one obstacle keeps getting in my way. My mental health. I can be very disabling for me. Sometimes, when I am unwell, I can’t even cook or eat properly. I can’t wash. Going to the toilet feels like a chore. Understanding and depicting between reality and fantasy can be a challenge.

I think a lot. I use mindfulness to tame my thinking – and often my mind may be empty, and still I think a lot. I can switch off, but this doesn’t mean that I don’t want all of these things for myself, along with a fantastic relationship, and friends, and above all – learning to manage my mental health.

One thing I still struggle with a lot is knowing how much I can do. I often feel like I want every waking moment of my days to be achieving something – be that studying, learning, writing, reading, running, climbing, art. Perhaps I expect too much of myself. I’m not sure.

When I’m depressed though, something I always struggle with is my inability to do very much at all – and learning to reign in my ideals of how I want to live my life. Accepting the limitations placed on me by my illnesses is something I have not fully accepted. I have accepted it more than I could a few years ago: it is a process. At the same time, I don’t want to not live my life because of my illnesses. I don’t want to sell myself short. I think most people can relate to wanting to be the best version of themselves, and to wanting to live their life as the best version of themselves.

So accepting that I can only read a paragraph at a time, accepting that I can’t go out or leave the house, accepting that I can’t run 4 times a week because quite simply, I am too unwell is difficult to adapt to each time I get unwell. Unfortunately, for me, getting unwell is still a frequent part of my life and I wonder if ever I will be as well as I hope to be. I expected to be a fully functioning member of society with a brilliant job after being off work for 6 months. That was 6 years ago. Evidently, these hopes and desires didn’t quite pan out.

There are times when I wish I was someone else. There are more than numerous times when I wish I didn’t have my illnesses. In fact, I wish this most days that I’m affected negatively by them. I think that is natural, right? So here, on that point right there I need to do some more acceptance work. By that I don’t mean stop fighting and give in. By that I mean learn when to pull the reigns in and accept that for a period of time I probably can’t do everything I want to do or wish for.

The difficulty of this acceptance I think is compounded by the highs I experience. During these times, life is bloody wonderful and I’m functioning at 200%. I’m productive beyond measure, goal orientated like a world champion athlete chasing after an Olympic Gold. I’m talented. I’m brilliant. I’m capable of anything and everything I set myself to. This is called hypomania – and the part that gets me the most is the comparison.

When I am hypomanic, experiencing myself at 200% and loving it, producing grand plans and ideas of how I’m going to become successful in every sense of the word makes the contrast between this state and being so low I cannot leave my bed a more bitter pill to swallow – and in swallowing my meds, I am to an extent, forfeiting these periods of my best self.

Overall, I know it is worth it because I get severely depressed much more than I get hypomanic – yet the contrast of the, “but I’m so brilliant” during those times is a difficult price to pay for stability. Over the years I have refused medications and not taken my medication. Slowly I have learned that this is in fact the worst thing I can do because 90% I will go down, down, down. I have learned the importance of taking my meds, and the importance of self-care in terms of sleep hygiene, and keeping calm in my overall performance, because what is the use of functioning and being my best self at 200% for a few weeks once a year or so, compared to a functioning level between 60-70% for the majority of the time? It is an equation of better odds in longevity.

But I have a big mind and I despise not being capable. I despise not being independent 100% of the time. I resent the fact that I am resigned to not working full-time, perhaps ever. At times it eats me up inside that I may never reach my full best self due to my illness – and actively accepting that going to the shop for some milk and watching Netflix is as good as it’s going to get for a few weeks is a painful realisation to find yourself in when you have such a big mind.

I know that I need to tame my mind. I may not be able to be brilliant all the time, much to my disappointment – but I can be above good for most of the time when I’m well? Is that a fair price to pay for being 5% of myself, and totally disabled by my mental illness? No. I don’t think so. Is it reality though? Is that just how mental illness goes? Yes. I suppose it is. Do I want to accept that? Not at all. Do I need to accept that? Most definitely.

Many brilliant minds in the public eye are tortured by mental illness, yet they manage to be really quite remarkable. Stephen Fry. Ruby Wax. Catherine Zeta Jones. Demi Lovato. When I see how successful they are, I find myself thinking, why not me? There is an element of self belief required, but the truth is, these people are exceptions. Exceptional minds and personalities with mental illness. They do not represent the majority of people with mental illness. I think society forgets that and that help me to also forget that.

I see a lot of people where I live, and amongst the services and hospitals I’ve been to who experience severe mental illness, and for them, just living in supported accommodation or volunteering 4 hours a week is as good as it’s going to get. Yet I don’t see myself amongst that population. I don’t see myself as higher or better, but I see my mind as bigger. I don’t identify with the people in my living complex who spend all day every day staring into space smoking and drinking – I see myself in the Stephen Fry’s and the Demi Lovato’s: but I just can’t sustain my abilities at a high enough level – and that is something I suppose I need to learn to accept. That is something I need to learn to live with, without thinking I may as well kill myself at the same time. That is something I am sure many of us struggle with, mental illness or not.

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I just wish I could be my 200% for 100% of the time. I can dream. We all can. If I keep dreaming, and keep trying, it might become reality – until then, I need to reign in my expectations of myself again – and the heart wrenching reality of my illness hits me hard in the gut, in my soul, at my very core of what I consider to be my being. This is why I don’t work. This is why many people with mental illness don’t work and that’s OK – I just wish every person understood that without judgement. Maybe one day I too will work full-time, maybe I won’t.  Like I said though, I can dream right?

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Mental Health Recovery: A Game of Snakes and Ladders.

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Recovering from mental illness is no straight forward feat. Penning a perfect analogy of snakes and ladders about this journey is Ian Fullbrook of sidebysidemh.com. Enjoy!

 

Dealing with a mental illness is like climbing the rungs of a ladder. You look up at the ladder, thinking there’s no end to it. In the early stages of diagnosis, you are in despair and think how difficult it is to get on that first rung of recovery. But it can be done, no one says it’s easy, and there will be times when you slip back down, but hopefully it’s temporarily.

Like Sir Edmund Hilary climbing Everest, every expedition can be done, and every ladder and mountain climbed. There are several steps to be undertaken of course, like first of all seeking that help to get onto that first rung. The help of doctors, family, friends, mental health services, the overcoming of that denial that “I’m fine – there’s nothing wrong with me – I’ll get over it”. Also, you have to convince others that there’s something wrong. You will hear the familiar refrain of “Get over it- there’s nothing wrong with you – pull yourself together”, as though mental illness is a made up thing to get sick notes or to get off work. You cannot turn mental illness on and off like a light switch. It’s your body’s way of saying “I’ve had enough – time to start shutting down”.

That first rung seems inordinately big, but with the right help, you can clamber onto the next one – tackling some of the problems that have led to the illness in the first place. When I was first diagnosed with clinical depression, I had six or seven major issues going on. I couldn’t cope. The first piece of advice was given to me by my sister, who said “Tackle one thing at a time – then move on to the next”. A priceless piece of advice. If you try and tackle too many things, your head will just about come off with the strain. Little steps and enlisting support from your social networks are key to any improvement.

There will be setbacks as I’ve already mentioned. There will be people, circumstances, your own state of mind and health that will dictate how far you fall, but you’ve already conquered that first rung, and once that second rung has been accomplished, it’s time to return to activities that you previously enjoyed. Try and get into a social group, talk about your experiences, volunteer, anything you like, just so long as the mind is distracted. Again, not an easy task, and there will be periods where you do not feel like doing anything. At times like this, remember the ladder and go just one step at a time. Believe me, it has enhanced my life to a level where I’m doing something like this!

Getting your experiences down does make a difference, whether on paper, or online. Your mind is concentrating, your experiences coming through; some painful, some joyous, and then you can share these with others.

Finally, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has helped me enormously too. One-on-one sessions with a trained professional counsellor, where he/she challenges your patterns of behaviour and ways of thinking. This has turned my life around, if not exactly into a vein of rich gold, into something more enjoyable. Yes, I do have my down days, and have experienced them recently too but I constantly remind myself about the ladder. It is big, and sometimes there appears to be no safety net sight. It’s a long way down, but equally it’s a long way up with a great sense of achievement.

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Writer: Ian Fullbrook

Ian lives in London, England. You can find him on twitter @grav20

Artist: Ronnie Schwartz

Ronnie lives in Vancouver, BC. He specializes in “abstract architecture” paintings. You can find more of his work here.