Book Review: Sane by Emma Young

Emma Young embarked on a well being journey for her book Sane. She explored what we can do to be less stressed and more mentally strong, whatever that means. Throughout the book many different stances are proposed as to what it means to be mentally strong. Throughout her journey, Young interviews ex-military personnel, professors of various disciplines in medicine, psychiatry and psychology as well as yogi’s, friends, and anyone who may have an inkling to the answer of how to achieve elusive holy grail of a clear mind, patience of a saint and an even temper in the most outraging of situations.

In the introductory chapter, Young outlines very clearly that she doesn’t suffer from any diagnosed mental illness, and that this journey has been embarked upon by someone more worn down by every day stresses, rather than someone facing a mental health condition. The list is very long about what Young is not, and what she is: an every day woman, mother and wife trying to feel less frayed, less snappy, less stressed and  more able to juggle all of life’s challenges more efficiently is a powerful place from which to start. From the offset Young is very relatable, and her daily difficulties very common amongst the average British household.

Many of the tools explored are also used and advised to those with mental illness too, although in less of a magical cure sort of fashion and more in a helpful maintenance or coping tool. The areas covered and explored throughout the book include: mindfulness, exercise, nutrition, sleep, stoicism, spirituality and faith, mental toughness methods addressing self-talk, and mindset in the face of adversity, using your senses and essentially, how to utilise each skill.

Many of these areas have been researched on healthy individuals as well as individuals with mental illness, so reading the book was a bit of an information digging sort of read on my behalf. There seemed to be some areas in here that I hadn’t addressed or come across in my journey to constantly  get better from my mental illness difficulties. Stoicism for example, is a stance I hadn’t heard of. To be copletely honest I wasn’t even sure what was meant by stoicism. I thought it was a blast to the past of the keep calm and carry on mantra, which in an essence it is, but it is slightly different.

One method that I thought I could really take home for myself was dosage exposure to the outside of my comfort zone. In doing so,, it is explained, that you learnt to adapt and therefore wind up expanding your comfort zone and tools for dealing with challenges that may arise. Thinking back to the progress I’ve made in the last 5-6 years and looking over what made me get a bit better than I was before, a key feature is the consistent and gradual pushing of the edges of my comfort zone.

Initially this occurred with eating whilst recovering from my ED, then with dealing with everything the ED numbed me to, then going out and interacting with people then, well, the list just goes on. On particular area of interest that is highly relatable is learning how to manage your relationship with food and diet.

Although there was no clinical eating disorder in Young, however, a constant and chaotic relationship with food and yo-yo dieting was hinted at throughout the book as a constant factor of anguish in Young’s life. It is very true when Young suggests that with practice, utilising techniques in order to avoid sugary treats and all the temptations we are bombarded with to gorge our faces on unhealthy foods in every direction does get easier with time. From my experience as well, at first dietary changes are very difficult, because you are breaking a habit that occurs multiple times on a daily basis but with practice and repetitive behaviour of new habits, it does get easier- Young reports a similar experience.

I think this is true for any habit you are trying to develop, change or stop. However, with eating the ease of change can be seen quicker because it is a habit with which we must engage with multiple times a day. This makes it both harder and easier in different ways.

There are many valuable insights revealed throughout Young’s journey on her quest to be less frazzled, less stressed and more able to deal with life head on, whilst being switched on and if possible, attain some level of zen in the process. At the end of the book Young summarises the areas of exploration in a rank of importance measured by perceived positive effect.

I won’t spoil the last chapter, but I found it a very valuable read for pointing out and suggesting new areas to think about in regards to building psychological strength and resistance within myself. My one criticism would be the amount of side tracked waffle of unnecessary information throughout the book. I found that quite irritating throughout the book because it generally disrupted the flow of information throughout the book. However, for the quality of the content over that of style, I would reccomend this is a worthwhile read if you fancy exploring developing your mental strength.

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Realising What It Is To Feel Truly Alive

Today I was thankful to myself for having picked up and persisted with exercising regularly. Why? I was thankful for being relatively fit and to my body for allowing me a beautiful experience hiking to and through the Gorropu Canyon in Sardinia. I had the strength and stamina to hike and ramble over rocky and hilly terrain. If there is any gift the body can give you it is being capable, not of achieving but capable of experiencing.

In life the final destination is death. We all get there one way or another some day. Death doesn’t seem to be the highlight of living, the highlight of living is found in the journey and the experience of living. We all go about this in different ways, no way more right or wrong than another. Each way is entirely valid – and the way me meander the choices that cross our paths is one defining factor of our existence.

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Lets be more specific and less grandiose with this idea: today my previous choices to be healthy, mentally and physically have allowed my journey to include this trip to Sardinia, and today my trekking to the Gorrpu Canyon. As an able-bodied person I know all too well the feeling of being less able due to my mental illnesses. I know the feeling of can’t for the small tasks, the disappointment of  ‘I can’t go, I’m unwell’ for the planned events and, ‘I have mental illness’ for the explanations of all the things I can’t do but ought to be; working, driving and not self harming.

This inability in so many areas of  my life fuel great levels of gratitude for everything I can do. Furthermore when past choices have made me more able than I would have previously been also exemplifies my gratitude for the very basics of human life; the feeling of being alive, very alive, not too alive because that can become illness too, but very alive all the same.

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Another wonder of being alive is mindfulness practice. Generally mindfulness practice opens yourself up for space, observation and tuning into your body and mind. Mindfulness isn’t just for sitting silently and practising. Being mindful of moments in time and space opens up for really experiencing what is around you. Tuning in to how the mind feels gains understanding of what makes us feel good, or otherwise.

The little things make up our experience. Trekking in the Canyon of Gorropu was not a little thing but an accumulation of many little things to tune in with in one day make the Gorropu Canyon a big thing. The rock formations, the river, the wildlife and drinking water fresh from the spring. The stunning heights and great vastness of what nature created in this unforgiving climate and environment created by mother nature.

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My body again, thank you nature, was able to climb, scramble and hike in the heat of a 34 degrees celsius humid day. This was not due to nature alone though, my own input into myself contributed too. Earlier this year I chose to be more active. Years ago I originally made the choice. Getting to today has been a journey of multiple successes and failures. It has been a learning curve at times. I am not at my final destination, yet knowing what makes me feel alive, knowing what ignites a fire in my soul and knowing what really makes me happy about living can help form the decisions I make today and tomorrow for my future.

It turns out that exercising and nature are two of the most impacting aspects of life that make me feel alive. Even when it is hard and not so enjoyable the challenge is part of it that works for me. Feeling alive encompasses both positive and negative experiences. I don’t think this is a wildly new revelation but more a forgotten basic foundation for experience. Since the beginning of time people have led active lives and a lot of people like nature. We have only become so sedentary in the last century or so. To me it makes sense that we need activity and exercise to feel alive.

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Being alive is exactly that: your heart beating as you reach the peak of a climb, the profuse sweating that pours from your face, the motion of moving our muscle and the burn of lactic acid that means your muscles are working. The swell of your fingers as your blood vessels dilate in order for you to continue being and feeling alive whilst you enjoy the challenge and observe your surroundings.

Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes our body won’t allow you to do what you desire and that doesn’t mean you give up and resign, it means you do it more. You practise, you keep moving in order to fulfil your desires to do what you want to do, to experience what you want to and to ultimately feel fully alive in a way that lights you up and keeps you yearning with a passion for life itself.

Today I walked to and through the Gorropu Canyon. I saw nature in many forms from rock formations to dragonflies tinkling in the wind. I felt the coolness of the river water as I tipped it over my head with my hat whilst my heart beat pulsated through my entire body. I must have sweated litres, and I experienced the burn of the sun – the engine of all life forms – whilst hiking through the mountain followed by the relief of shade. I saw a cruel beauty at the canyon in an unforgiving climate and terrain that also has the ability to destroy you as much as it does amaze you.

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I am grateful for today, for being well enough and strong enough for today to have happened. I am now lusting after another trip for climbing and more hiking. I have had a snippet taste of this island and I want more. I want more experiences from the island that I can’t do now, rock climbing and harder hike for example. I also want more from myself, more strength, more experiences, more from the core of life. I want to experience life in a way that makes me feel alive and leaves me wanting more that money can’t buy. Today a spark became a flame and I want it to be a bonfire.

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?

I used to run 10k races. I used to climb twice a week for nearly a year. I used to do a lot of things, then I stopped because of my mental health difficulties. I am somewhat stable right now, enjoying life and finally in a place to be consistently running, climbing and taking in part in what makes my life worth living for me.

I have to frequently remind myself however, that I am at the beginning again – so I can’t compare myself to what I could do back then but rather that, what I could do back then is what I can do again in the future if I keep on pounding the same road.

My journey isn’t the same as anyone else’s – and neither is yours. We are all on our own unique roads – and comparisons between ourselves and those around us serve to only put our efforts down, or make life a competition. It isn’t. We all face the same end. We all have different journeys. Let’s enjoy, focus and live our own path whilst encouraging and celebrating each other at the same time.

New Places and Travel

  
I had my first race of 2016 booked for this morning. The alarm was set, and early to bed I went. I woke up, dressed in my running gear and put my travelling clothes on top. I packed my bag with my running jacket, snacks and water. I looked up my route on city mapper…shit, it’s long and in a place I don’t know.

I’ll go anyway. I really want to go.

I put on my coat, grab my wallet, scarf for afterwards, everything and bam! Oh Hi brick wall of anxiety 20 ft high, with no rope, no steps no nothing to climb over it with. I start welling up, wanting to cry. I can’t do it.

It’s not the race, or the fitness gear. It’s not that people will be watching me run and clapping me along at the back of the race, or that my jiggly bits will wobble or my thighs look fatter than they once did even though all of these things are bothering me. It’s travel. I struggle with travel. I struggle with new places. I struggle with going to new places, and I struggle with travelling.

It helps if I have someone to travel with but no one was available to come with me this morning, and I can’t go through life expecting people to escort me everywhere, but unfortunately, sometimes I need that.

However, it is not all bad. I went for a run. I did my 5k I just didn’t get a goody bag, medal or t-shirt for doing it but I have a pretty awesome race in central London in areas I know at the end of the month to look forward to so all is not lost.

I’m trying to be positive as I can about this situation. I’m trying really hard. I think, considering I wanted to overdose and strangle myself to death the other day I’m not doing too bad. For that, I will reward myself with a coffee date with a friend.