Today I am marking World Mental Health Day by considering some important things I have learned over a number of years. Over time and with a lot of help and medication, I have acknowledged, accepted and come to accommodate the strange limits my mind puts on me.
Except when I don’t.
(Some days are better than others.)
Bad days are brain fog. Malfunctioning. Panic.
Bad days are forgettory days.
Bad days are dissolved dreams. The fear of fear.
Bad moments leaking into good days tie my words and emotions.
Bad days are full of can’ts and empty of most of the other stuff.
The world might have woken up with a bottle green sky and velcro pavements and nothing would feel alien; I would just be aware that – as usual – everything is odd again.
Then the frustration and the disappointment and the grief at so many little inadequacies and unfulfilled potential returns, so that even if the initial anxiety was inert, it is now tainted.
But. This journey is a familiar place now; a commute I know well enough to recognise.
I have learned to see that I am not alone, and not being ok at times is ok too. And, instead of letting the journey focus me on myself, my healing has involved looking outwards. How can I help others? What are other people’s stories? How can I be part of someone else’s solution?
Those around me almost all seem to be affected by hurting minds too, perhaps in different ways, and at different times. Caring people. Intelligent people. Wise people. Thoughtful people. Decent people. People carrying burdens they weren’t designed to have to carry alone.
The journey is always better when it is shared. Relief comes when you accept you are not sufficient to meet your own lack. When you can grieve this with others and release emotions as many times as you need to.
Talking helps. Honesty and truth will get you a long way.
Medication helps too.
Realistic targets help, and celebrating the wins.
Self-forgiveness and acceptance, and guts to keep on when you are blindly navigating territory you don’t want to be in.
The Mental Health Foundation has lots of good advice on their website.
For me, the journey hasn’t always been as bleak as the first time I made it. Familiarity means you can find and practise using tools to equip you when your brain does not want to work. It is more than 25 years since I started facing down depression and anxiety, and if you are interested in knowing some of the tools which definitely work for me and may well for you or others too, here’s a start…
Autopilot and habit forming
I make a lot of lists and plans, and fall back on routines to get through busy times of the day. Plans help me to identify the most urgent and important tasks of the day and put my mental resources into these. At times when I cannot focus well for more than a minute or so, I know I have many tasks I can do around the house on autopilot.
It has surprised me just how much my own condition has affected my concentration and mental stamina. If I know I have to be alert for a period of time, I’ll need to prepare exceptionally well and allow considerable recovery time afterwards. This has meant giving up full-time teaching and moving into part-time tutoring. This is not a problem though, as it is a job I love and which feeds into my passions.
I find that I need regular breaks on a daily and weekly basis, and when weekends fill up with activity I need to give myself a day during the week to recharge my mind. This often falls on a Wednesday, which is the day when my mind is usually least likely to be functioning.
Cups of tea or coffee
I make a point of having a quiet time every morning after the school run with a nice snack and a hot drink so I can pray and read and prepare emotionally for the day. When I don’t manage my quiet time I almost always regret it later in the day. I also make a point of noting what I did the day before in a diary, which helps stimulate my flagging memory, and to consider what the ‘best thing’ was that day.
Although I would like the family to take on more of the chores, it is not simple to teach housework to or supervise tired children when I am mentally spent – this means the kids are not doing enough around the house, but it also gives me a deeper sense of purpose when chores are all I can manage. Even these can be too much some days. I have responsibilities in various forums and would love to be able to take on more roles in the children’s schools and at church, but experience has told me (many times) that I cannot do as much as I think I ought to be able to without burning so low on resources that I need excessive recovery time, and that it is ok to share the load with others.
Three months ago I decided, rather suddenly, to stop eating chocolate for a period of time. My resolve was almost certainly connected to my expanding waistline. After a few weeks of feeling sorry for myself and inordinate amounts of salted caramel ice cream, I discovered that I had lost the desire for it.
This was proved when I visited Cadburyworld with the family during the summer; I just didn’t want any. I still have my free chocolate bars (and a lot I bought in case I change my mind), sitting on the shelf at home.
I now aim to cut out other offending junk food, one area at a time. The results are slow, but already I fit some of my clothes better.
Having Faye has meant a good routine and discipline for walking twice a day for at least 20 minutes, and more often than not a lot more. Getting outdoors is good for my mind in lots of ways, but stretching the legs and the satisfaction of hitting more than 10,000 steps in a day is a real mood-lifter.
My friends who don’t judge me, who accept me, listen and encourage me are utterly precious. I have found friends in different places and at different times who have helped walk with me in the darkest hours, and I am grateful to God for every one of them.
Friends who can distract with activity, or enrich with beauty, or enable with words.
Friends who see the me I want to be, not the me I think I am becoming.
Friends who can tell me, in the best possible way, that sometimes you need to stop, and return to something a little later, when you are ready.