There’s a culture amongst people my own age (mid-20s, privileged and British) I’ve noticed more and more since I’ve started writing frankly about my mental health. The conversations I’ve been having with readers are some of the most honest and vulnerable I’ve ever had, and readers all seem to have a version of the same response to my writing: relief.
It’s a relief to know that you’re not alone, but more than that, it’s a relief to know that it’s ok to be sick. It’s ok, if you’re struggling, maybe for the first time in your life, just to keep your head above water.
I went through life, until very recently, as though I were playing a video game. I’m the kind of person who never plays through a game twice to try out different endings – if I’ve beaten something once, I have zero interest in going through it all again. I think that’s why I’ve found mental illness so shocking, and so damaging to my sense of self.
Every year when I was a child I Levelled Up, Scott Pilgrim-style. Year 10, achievement unlocked! GCSE’s, passed! A-Levels – congratulations, you’ve unlocked University! University complete, click here to download your diploma!
There were superficial choices to make. Which courses to take, which university to attend, which career to pursue, but the big choices were never really up for debate. It was never a question of if I’d go to university, but where.
The thing is, when you graduate you’re left with no further achievements to unlock. While I was at uni, I defeated the big Boss Level of severe depression and moved on with my life – I wasn’t interested in re-visiting the level, or playing through with a different approach. I went to work, and spent two years in peaceful routine, then decided that the career I was in wasn’t for me.
This decision, starting from almost-the-beginning in a new profession, coincided with the development of an anxiety disorder and the unwelcome return of my depression.
Suddenly, I wasn’t able to do the things I’d ‘unlocked’ in previous years. My ability to run long distance fell apart when my commute got longer, co-habitation with the Welshman meant I’d rather spend time with him than do yoga. All the skill-points I’d amassed slipped away from me, and suddenly it felt like I was playing the game with a broken controller. I could survive, just about, but that was it. There was no more progress to be made.
A wise woman looked me in the eye recently and asked me a brutally perceptive question. I was talking about having a bad day, and how I’d been so worried that people who didn’t know me were off-put or disgusted by my panic attack.
‘What would happen if you didn’t care?’ she asked.
Caring takes energy. It takes emotional and psychological strength to focus on other people, on arbitrary successes and reaching new heights in life, and when those muscles are weakened by mental illness I wasn’t capable of taking care of myself and worrying about my progress at the same time.
Sometimes, you won’t make any progress. Your panic attacks will be consistent, so much so that they begin to get predictable – same time of day, same trigger, same people setting them off. Your depression will be a familiar and unrelenting weight for you to carry around all day.
Here are 5 things to do when you’re not making any progress:
- Try not to care. This probably sounds annoyingly over-simplified, and I’d like to make it clear that I know how devastating it is to not make any progress. It makes you weary in a way I cannot put into words to look at how far you’ve come and find that it doesn’t measure up. The thing is, as I said above, caring takes energy you might not have spare right now. Make an effort to focus on things that are good, not things that could be better. As I’ve said before, sometimes just being alive is a huge achievement, and anyone who judges you for letting other things slide probably isn’t worthy of your concern.
- Try a little gratitude. It can be really difficult to think of anything to be grateful for when things are grim and you’re not making progress, so my suggestion is to start really small. Start with waking up. Think – or say, out loud – I’m grateful I had a place to sleep last night. Be grateful for breakfast, and your partner being happy to see you. Be grateful for coffee, and the fact that the train was on time, and the fact that there was tea when you got to the office. Be grateful for dogs in the park and the cat you petted on your walk, grateful your work was distracting and your colleagues helpful. When you’re depressed, each second you take to be grateful is a little f*ck you to your mental illness. It’s also a really calming practice when you’re feeling anxious.
- Break the pattern. At home, you have all your triggers right in front of you. You know where, when and why you’re likely to have a bad patch, and your bad days feel like part of the routine. If you have the resources, I’d recommend a holiday, even if you can only get away for the weekend. Go somewhere new – exhaust yourself, eat good food, and try your hand at just being somewhere new. If the thought of being away from your coping mechanisms is daunting, talk it through with whoever is coming with you. I once spent a holiday in Amsterdam that was punctuated every day by a 2-hour ‘nap break’ to give my friend time for her anti-anxiety nap routine. She slept, full of apple cake and culture, while the rest of us watched MTV reality shows. If you don’t have the resources for an actual holiday, try to go home. Let your mum take care of you for a bit.
- Don’t carry it all. It can be tempting to internalise all the shame and disappointment you feel about your lack of progress, especially if your mental health issues have already put a lot of strain on your close relationships. I’d really advise against it. Reach out to a friend or family member, and book a lazy Sunday – brunch is good, or just having tea and ignoring a Disney movie in favour of catching up. If you have someone who fits this description, I’d recommend a friend who won’t take your illness personally, the way your partner or parents might – someone who will listen and empathise without trying to assign blame. Mental illness is blameless, but it’s really difficult to see it like that if you’re too close to the person suffering. Sit down, and have a cathartic conversation. Tissues and chocolate on tap, please.
- Stop punishing yourself. This one’s tricky, because it’s almost symptomatic of depression and anxiety. There’s a little voice in your head, telling you that you’re not good enough, that you’re fat and stupid and you should have made more progress by now. There will be times when you won’t have control of the little voice, but you always have the option of telling it to f*ck off! In the same way that physical self-harm can be grounding, listening to this voice and sitting with that feeling of inadequacy and stress is a form of psychological self-harm that can feel good, like worrying a wobbly tooth or fiddling with a hang-nail. It can become a habit to beat yourself up about things that either aren’t true or are completely out of your control, and neither is helpful. Ask yourself, is this feeling helping? Is it productive? If not, you have no reason to wallow in it. Cut yourself some slack, and try never saying anything to yourself you wouldn’t say to your best friend. No one deserves to feel the way you’re feeling.
I know it’s hard. I know that there can seem like there is no way out, and that you are too tired to keep going.
Put one foot in front of the other. Again. Take a break if you have to, but know that working through mental illness can be like trekking through a blizzard – even if everything looks the same, you’re still making progress, and to sit still and give up won’t help you get out.
Let me know how you’re getting on.
With love, always,
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NB: PLEASE NOTE, I AM NOT A DOCTOR OR A MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL. THIS BLOG IS INTENDED AS A PERSONAL DIARY, AND ANY ADVICE GIVEN IS FRIENDLY AND LIGHT-HEARTED – PLEASE DO NOT USE IT INSTEAD OF SEEKING PROFESSIONAL HELP. IF YOU DISAGREE WITH ANY ADVICE I GIVE, PLEASE LET ME KNOW. SIMILARLY, IF YOU ARE OFFENDED FOR ANY REASON, PLEASE SHARE AND I WILL TAKE YOUR THOUGHTS INTO CONSIDERATION. FINALLY, IF YOU ARE HAVING VIOLENT OR SELF-HARMING THOUGHTS PLEASE SEEK MEDICAL HELP AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.