The other day I scrolled through Twitter and stumbled upon a poll that went something like this:
‘I feel anxious, do I…?’
a) take a diazepam and risk napping and messing up my sleep tonight
b) drink a coffee
In my response I opt for other. I suggest mindfulness. They don’t ‘do’ mindfulness. I suggest the Headspace app, they tell me their opinion of mindfulness is summed up in one word: bollocks. Fair enough. Everyone is entitled to their opinion.
Then I realise something in myself. I am recommending mindfulness because I know the benefits, I’ve felt them. I recommend it as a useful tool for everyone to take a few minutes out of the day to just notice. I say this as if I couldn’t imagine a day without it. I say this as I realise I haven’t practised in over a week. Why haven’t I practised in over a week?
I haven’t practised because I started to get unwell. I started to feel hectic and out of control. I started to sway from my stay well plan after a while of not being well. This is definitely the time when embracing and holding onto mindfulness would be really beneficial and I’m not. I wonder about why this could be and realise I am indulging in another patterns of ‘all or nothing’.
All or nothing thinking featured during my eating disorders, friendships, studying, relationships, working life, attending uni and now in my stay well plans. I’m getting well? I’m full force ahead: day plans for routine, exercising, goals, writing, eating healthily and of course, mindfulness. I try to stick it out for a while each time I get unwell. As my stay well plans slip and slide on the suds of soapy thoughts slipping in and out of my mind as I lose my routine without noticing until presented with the gift of hindsight I stop. I just stop.
I don’t eat well. I stop work outs on my plan. I skip mindfulness and daily structure plans. Before I know it, all structure is gone and I am at mercy to any whim the weather may take. I am flitting about in wing it mode in regards to filling my time. No longer is not having time in my schedule for helpful things to take an extra benzo or drink a bottle of wine to forget it all the motion of the moment. I have all the time. I have all the unstructured time to get wasted because I can’t handle myself. Self discipline is gone. The will to even engage with my stay well plan ebbs into a low tide further and further from shore.
I have successfully gone from maintain all of my plan to none of it in days. I realise as i re-offend mindfulness on a pedestal to someone else sailing a ship with anxiety at the helm. I recommend this as I am no different. I know some of what helps me. I know some of what doesn’t. What I haven’t learned yet is fully how to keep going with just something, I haven’t learned mastery. I think moderation is a skill. I am learning. We are all always learning – this is something I realise I need to put more focus and thought into still. Just how I do that I don’t yet know.
As with every episode, as it comes to an end and I regain the ability to think I start making plans to try to stay well. I reflect on what has been helpful for me in the past or in general. I look at the advice given by others with similar difficulties. I try to do what my CMHT tell me is helpful and not helpful.
It’s a lot. It’s a lot of studying yourself and others. It’s a lot of analysing what perhaps didn’t work so well, and what did.
I’ve made a plan, which focuses mainly around reinstating a form of routine to my days. Prior to this episode I had routine due to uni and studying for my exams. I’ve lost that and feel it needs to be established in some form over the summer months until September.
My Stay Well List:
Keep engaging with the Headspace app for daily mindfulness practice as well as practicing mindfulness in general such as whilst brushing my teeth, whilst travelling and checking in throughout the day with myself.
Eat well. Whole nourishing food. Start with eliminating added sugar to my hot drinks. Aim for an 80/20 distribution of micronutrient rich food and food just for fun.
Sleep. Try to keep to a routine of waking up at a decent time. Currently aiming for 7:30am – with the view to push it to 6:30am.
Make a routine out of nothing. Busy myself enough so that there is no abundance of unfilled time.
Talk to and work with my care coordinator: even if I don’t particularly want to.
Exercise – follow an outline training plan, which gives routine and predictability to each week.
Create purpose by signing up to volunteering roles to help with routine as well.
Take vitamin supplement with particular focus on magnesium and zinc in chosen supplement. Take it every other day. Also keep taking meds.
Don’t get drunk. Just the occasional 1-2 drinks.
Read for pleasure to keep the mind occupied. Recognise when to reduce stimulus and do it, even as caution if unsure.
That’s a lot! Unfortunately it all feels necessary. Mood swings seem to be accompanied by a lapse in my self-care regime and routine of activities. It can be hard to get the balance of busy enough but not too busy. Engaged enough but not in excess.
Balance is something that I’ve been working on trying to achieve more of since the beginning of the year. I’m still working on it. I suppose this is going to be quite the journey.
The tiredness hits. You’re grateful and glad to finally feel tired. It means you might actually sleep a decent amount. There is no predicting whether you will sleep properly or manage just a few hours again.
If you sleep a whole night, you may wake up with your eyes and your body aching, refusing to move. The crash is as much physical as it is mental. It’s a stark contrast in a very short period of time.
It can take hours to just sit up in bed. Your body is rebelling against the past string days or weeks of over exertion. It is refusing to comply. There are no thoughts: the brain also rebels, refusing to be alive. I am alive, but I feel like I may well be dead. I even wonder if I am dead or not. Did something happen and I’m not waking up? Is my body dead but my mind still active? Am I in a coma? Is this limbo before all consciousness goes?
No. It is none of these. It is just the sheer exhaustion from flying for days. There are no stores left. You’ve not been eating or sleeping yet doing so much. Your body decides that finally it is indeed human and subject to the same needs as everyone else: sleep, food and water. There is no choice in the matter. Sloth like doesn’t even begin to describe the slowness. You speak slow, you move slow, you are slow. Slow to think and slow to process – breathing feels exhausting.
They say the higher the high, then the steeper and deeper the crash. This is how I have experienced it with hypomania: mania is much more severe. Dark thoughts cloud your judgement but this time, you don’t have the energy to do anything about them. So you sit. You sit and you wait.
The advice I received during this phase was to just wait it out. Use distraction methods that are manageable: sleep when you need, and watch TV. Distract yourself until it passes. With the weather it will pass.
For as disappointing this part is, it is welcome in the way that finally things seem to be balancing out again. Finally, you can sleep and with the crash that means the ability to eat is closer to returning. It is probably the safest phase of the whole up, down, regulation disruption because there is no energy or drive to harm yourself or others.
There is desire to end it. The realisation that you’ve been horrible to the people you love, and worse to the ones you don’t. The regret and having no money due to a long list of unnecessary expenditures. These are all the facts of the aftermath that need to be faced upon returning to a more balanced place.
The worst though, is the realisation that you just had another episode. How many more to go? How much more time until the mood swings are a thing of the past? How many more times will you need to go up or very far down before things decide enough is enough and regulate?
Then I realise that there is no time limit. This is an illness that flares just as if I had recurrent chest infections due to asthma. I realise the things that went out the window that may have aided in the triggering of the episode. I realise that there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of just putting it all behind you and moving on as I would like with mental illness. Then I start to think that I can’t.
I start to think that I can’t do this anymore. I think about how tired I am of losing control. I think about how much time and how many plans I’ve lost to running around in a purposeless fever and how I’m now behind on my training. I get frustrated about not being able to stick with my training plan because these mood swings come along and disrupt any ability to stick to a regime – yet I need routine and order. It has been established that routine and order help me to stay stable.
Then I begin to realise how much more work is required for me to just wake up and manage each day than I think and perceive it to be for other people. Even if I do have the time of my life for a few days – I lose more losing my mind to rhyming gibberish and recovering in the aftermath of the crash.
The reason I don’t work, the reason that my life feels chaotic stares me right in the face, stares me down and with my tail between my legs I have to accept it. I would like to rise up and say “bring it’, but the battering is so much that I don’t feel able to…yet. Maybe one day. It is in this phase out of all of the hypomania phases that I need to keep hold of hope. I need to believe in hope during this phase just as much as when I’m depressed. Without hope all-purpose and drive is lost under a bus and I’m done.
So I start to plan how I’m going to move forward. I pick up my trusty FiloFax again. I make lists and plans. I write down ideas of what will keep me well and stable. It’s a long list that feels very much like a full-time job in itself. It’s tiring, no, exhausting! It’s destabilising. This was just a hiccup in the road compared to some episodes – yet enough to have rocked my boat so that I’ve thrown all the life rings out to catch the debris of me floating around not yet re-connected.
My confidence has been knocked. My self-esteem and belief in myself that I can achieve and do what I want with my life, or at least, some of what I want with my life. The need to keep taking my medication is reaffirmed to the point of being fearful of not taking it. It’s a slap in the face that knocks you over when you’ve just found your feet.
Every time I stand it isn’t long until I’m bitch slapped again. I feel angry, hurt and sad. I feel confused, slight disbelief and frustration. I feel disappointed, cautious, restricted by routines and measures to try to stay well, but there is no choice.
I may not always manage to stay well but I have to try. I owe myself and those that I love that much. I have to keep trying and when I feel like giving up I have to reach out for support despite my grand desire to be self-reliant all the time. My pride takes a hit with gusto. I am humbled to the point of slightly crumbling at the seams whilst I try to fervently stitch myself back up and get my life back together.
This is my life. I need to work on accepting that some more.
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.
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?
In the pub one December evening in 2014 a friend and I decided it would be a really good idea to sign up for Tough Mudder. We decided it would be fun, it would be a real laugh and a challenge that was totally do-able. We 100% had it in the bag already, after a pint or two I was convinced I could run it right now and with nine months to train. We were gonna smash it. We teamed up and began to raise money for Mind in the process.
I was originally signed up for Tough Mudder in September 2015. However, in early September I found myself stuck in hospital in the middle of nowhere. On section, I wasn’t allowed to leave and there was no leeway for negotiation. I deferred my entry until May 2016 with the assumption that I would be better and have had enough recovery time to focus on training again.
Some new meds, some disruptions and some turbulence later I was admitted on section in April 2015. This meant that again, I couldn’t go. This time, ashamed and disappointed I retreated into the distance. I went quiet. Overcoming that admission took a very long time; it had a profound effect on me and when I came home I struggled to even go to the shop on my own. My social worker described what I went through with that admission as a trauma, and no wonder I was overwhelmed. I guess it’s hard to know when everything is so confusing and you don’t understand why you’re stuck on the inside, and everything is a whirlwind of screaming, fighting, restraints and tears.
As a result, I went quiet about all the races I missed during that admission and the money I raised was donated over to Mind regardless. I was upset and felt guilty for having accepted donations and money and having not actually done the challenge I was sponsored for. I also felt guilty asking for a Mind charity place for a third time. So I didn’t. I let it go.
I accepted that I had been too unwell to be able to go to Tough Mudder twice in a row, and for as unfortunate as that was I accepted that it wasn’t my fault. I had to accept that these circumstances had been beyond my control and even though it didn’t feel ok, it was ok. That’s the nature of mental illness right? I put it behind me and focused on getting better, yet it still felt like unfinished business. In my mind, I was going to revisit it and tie the loose end for myself when I was more stable and more well, whenever that may be.
Then December 2016 happened. I had a rocky time with starting uni but during a particularly ambitious patch of behaviour I signed up. I had a touch of realism about me still, thank goodness, and I opted for the half distance. I kept it quiet and only told a close few incase I didn’t do it again.
The date crept up on me and fortunately I had managed to start running regularly again. It became harder to keep it quiet; a tad of excitement, a touch of self realisation that I could do it, and a growing sense of self belief spread the secret out a bit more than I had initially intended.
On the day, Wifey and I travelled to the venue together. She wasn’t running however, said she may consider running one next year? *nudge nudge – that would be a really great idea – hint*. She sat with me during the pre-race nerves and put up with my excessive neediness for affection and reassurance. in the run up to the race. Like the boss of a Wifey that she is, she stood by me right until it was time to go into the warm up pen. At the start line, she waved me off.
This was it. This was the moment that had taken be 1 1/2 years to get to. This was the event that had hung over me for the past 2 1/2 years and I had finally crossed the start line. It seems to be a theme that getting to the start line is the hardest part for me. I was on my own. The tough Mudder mantra is that no one is on their own. The challenge is about comradery and teaming up with people you don’t know. You’re all in this together, you start together and you finish together. However, running a race that most people sign up with for in a group can make running it feel a little bit lonely at times.
I’m no stranger of doing things on my own. I am an only child after all. I’ve been wanting to start running trails lately, so running the off-road terrain was something I really enjoyed, even without music. The constant challenge and excitement of the terrain was enough to keep my mind occupied: the scenery and the challenge of the hills, of which there were plenty was enough. Sometimes the course led us up a hill just for the fun of it to come back down. It’s like a reminder of a lot of what we do in life. Why do we run in big circuits, and climb walls to just come back down again? For the fun of it of course, and the feeling of accomplishment that you can’t get from not climbing the wall or running in a big circuit just for the fun of it.
The obstacles around the course were a good challenge and totally do-able. My favourite was block ness monster; I love water obstacles. It always takes some nerves to dive into a cold pool of muddy stinking water, but afterwards, despite stinking of sewage, you feel great. The other obstacles on the half course included: mud mile, the pyramid scheme, inverted walls, high walls, and the grand finale, Everest 2.0.
Everest 2.0 is one of those obstacles wherein which you have to break down barriers and put your trust in a stranger to haul you over the ledge all after you’ve run up a quarter pipe upon which it is highly likely to end in a royal motherfucker of a face plant. It took a number of attempts and to my surprise, I didn’t land on my face.
Also surprisingly, hanging from someone’s hands whilst straggling legs in all directions in an attempt to get over the ledge is really exhausting. Eventually when I was hauled over I had no strength left in me to help drag anyone over. In fact, i felt positively nauseous. Slowly I climbed down the ladder on the other side to be greeted by Wifey taking my photo and an upheaval of vomit into my mouth.
She ran to the hydration station and got me some water to drink to one of her infamous pep-talks. I could do it. It wasn’t far until the finish line now. I had already covered most of it. I recollected myself. Picked my sorry arse up off the floor and using her words of encouragement began to run again. I wasn’t far now. I was nearly done. I soon saw the finish line, with Wifey running up beside me to take my picture crossing the line.
There’s nothing quite like crossing the finish line of a race or challenge and seeing Wifey’s face beaming at me. I collected my treasured headband that certified I had indeed done a Tough Mudder challenge. I had done it. Two and a half years after I was originally signed up to line up at the start I made it. I crossed it.
Crossing that finish line was more than just a Tough Mudder challenge. It wasn’t just for fun anymore. It was unfinished business as a result of my mental health difficulties. Crossing that finish line signified finishing something I signed up to for myself years ago, and making it to the event and crossing that start line signified a new era of mental health better than I was for a long time. That’s very wordy, I don’t know how to say that in a less wordy or awkward way – I’m not great or at my best, but I am better, and that’s a big fucking deal.
Running Tough Mudder Half, for this reason, was a massive moment for me. It’s a year since I last signed up, and also a year since I was last roaming the corridors of a hospital ward. I’m not always well and I’m not unwell like I was back then. I’m bigger than I was due to medication. I’m slower than I was when I signed up and felt like I had the running world at my feet. I’m not as confident about my strength and abilities, yet I’m more confident than I was a month ago. Finally, thank you to everyone who sponsored me and yes, I finally ran it. I did it. I crossed the line. Loose end tied. I think this story is less about Tough Mudder and more about keeping on keeping on. When life throws you a royal shit storm, grab the hand of your right hand (wo)man and damn well dance, because together you’ve got this. We’ve got this.
I entered the year in the early stages of what progressed into a debilitating depressive episode. I had to take a month out of college so I could stay alive at home and have the burden of no further responsibilities whilst i lay paralysed face planting the sofa. The furthest I managed to go was to the kitchen table where I sat, staring. For days on end of stare at the same empty space of wall, which did nothing but stare back at me. I wanted to die. I wanted to kill myself but I didn’t have the energy to be bothered. I wasn’t washing. I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t exercising. Nothing mattered to me anymore. I did however manage to watch the first season of Orange is the new black. The theme song was quite catchy and this was the only thing to break my silent paralysis.