This Time Last Year – Mental Health Awareness Week

Fair warning – this is gonna get personal, and potentially pretty intense.

This week marks two things: Mental Health Awareness Week; and my dissertation hand in. It’s been a frantic week, people editing and writing to the wire. Not much sleep has been had, many coffees have been consumed, and hugs distributed en masse. Pictures have been taken, and congratulations sent. It feels like an ending. Sure, we still have exams, but there is something so final about dropping that wad of paper that we’ve been working on for over a year now into the submission box. It’s made me mad reflective.

Coincidentally, it is Mental Health Awareness Week. This year, there’s been some fantastic work done online, as well as a bunch of new content and projects being pushed into the limelight. It’s really nice. Since I got to uni, mental health has been at the forefront for me nearly constantly, whether that be my own, through my work with Student Minds UK, or my dissertation – the initial reason for me starting this blog. And now uni is over. The battle goes on, though, and I am incredibly lucky to have secured a job after I graduate working for The Shaw Mind Foundation and Trigger Press, a mental health charity and their publishing division. In my interview, they asked me what the five-year-plan was, and I responded, ‘Honestly, this was the five-year plan. I guess I’ll have to make a new one’. That got me thinking, as I’ve always been the sort of person to look to the future. Where sometimes it is terrifying, I was always taught growing up that the future is exciting, that it is going to be good. Coming to university, I figured out fairly quickly what I thought I wanted to do with my life, and I pushed for it. The plan kind of trailed off after that, as I didn’t know where I was going to be once I graduated. Now that I do, and now that university is coming to an end, I wanted to do something I tend to avoid: I want to take some time to look back.

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Yes, those are bunny ears made from pipe cleaners

A few weeks ago, during a particularly strong spell of nostalgia, I decided to look through some old diaries. I have always been terrible at keeping up with diaries – I never do them every day and usually lose the will after a few months. There will be three-month gaps where I write nothing, then a week where I write every day. I do believe diary-writing can have its benefits for mental health, but I remember finding that around this time last year, so much was going on, and so much of my time was geared towards what comes next, that I didn’t have time to dwell too much on what was happening, or had just happened. It started making me sad, so I stopped.

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This time last year, when we all did face masks and took the only photo in existence of all my flat together

Looking back on those entries, I cannot believe what I read. I messaged a friend as I went through it, and asked him how I couldn’t have seen how bad I was feeling. I was writing all this stuff about feeling trapped, or slow, or weighted down, but it was always followed with an ‘Ah well, such is life!’ kind of comment. Some of it was quite profound. One particular entry was based around me feeling slightly lighter than usual, and feeling completely caught off guard with it. Those days seemed so few and far between, and I had no idea. At the time, I was just getting through it as if it was normal. I was working, I was handing things in on time, I was going to the gym and seeing friends. But I was also writing things like ‘Whenever I’m with people, all I’m thinking about is when I can be alone again’. That day where I wrote about feeling better, I wrote to myself, ‘Your friends seem like people again’ and ‘Laughs reach your throat now. Not quite your heart, not quite your stomach, but it’s getting there’. Reading all this stuff, frankly, hit me very hard.

Reliving those moments made me see myself now incredibly differently. At that time, I was consistently, continuously tired but, because of who I am, I didn’t think it was that bad. It was just how things were, and I should be thankful for those days when I felt lighter. Those were the days that I held on to, so tightly, without even knowing why. Now, I can see why. Now, from a distance, I can see how much I was struggling, and how much I was working to get through it, and how tired that was making me. And it was exhausting. Now, I’m not tired unless I’ve been working all day, or out all night. Now, I look at my friends, and I feel so much for them; I wake up and I get up. I worry, but I don’t have to shut it down for fear of spiralling. I am mindful naturally, instead of forcing the calm to come. Now, I don’t have to feel thankful for the light days.

What I wanted to say with this is that I did something I never do, in looking back. I took the time to actually see something for what it was, and to give myself the acknowledgement that yeah, things were shit, really shit, for longer than I thought. But by doing that, I’ve been able to see how much things have changed. How different things are, not just with me, but with my relationships, my family and friends, my career. I am, for all intents and purposes, an entirely new person. I have different motivations, and goals. I want different things. But I am this way because of that time. The precedents I put in place then help me now, without even realising it. The time I spent trying to know my own mind, to calm it down, mean I do it without thinking now. The times I forced myself to be social, to smile, to interact, means I do it now easier and smoother than ever. Things that felt like chores then, are second nature now. And if that isn’t the best feeling in the world, then I don’t know what is.

This Mental Health Awareness Week, I wanted to think about how, with all the talk of living in the present, of mindfulness, and of acting for the future, it is also okay to think about the past. Looking back on myself this time last year has shown me how far I have come without realising. How things changed because I did things to change them, and how things do pay off eventually. We often think about the past through rose-tinted glasses, melancholic and nostalgic for the way things were once, and how we wished we could get them back. And that’s okay. It’s natural to reminisce. But it’s also important to recognise that it was bad sometimes, too. Things sucked sometimes. Acknowledging that not only gives you an immense power, but sometimes, like in my case, immense pride. I am scared of growing up, moving on from university and into the real world – massively scared. But looking back, I’ve done much more in a much worse frame of mind. And if I could achieve all this, after all that, then nothing seems all that scary anymore.

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Long story short, take the time this week to think about your past, not with a wistful eye, but with a look to the future. Miss the things you miss, but realise that there are a whole host of things you can be so glad are over. We need to change in order to grow but knowing where those roots came from is important. Be proud of them. I certainly am.

 

Here’s a list of people/organisations/content/resources I have used over the past year that have been invaluable to me:

 

  • Headspace, an app you can get free with Spotify Premium that talks you through meditation in an accessible, doable way.
  • Insight Timer, for those longer, bedtime talk-downs.
  • Daylio, which tracks my mood so I can see that yes, PMS really does make things worse.

 

  • Happy Place, a podcast by Ferne Cotton where she speaks to celebrities and public figures about their experiences with mental health in the most calming manner. 
  • Dodie Clark, for showing me that it’s okay not to know what you’re doing, but doing it anyway.
  • Matt Haig, for writing Reasons to Stay Alive, a book I needed before I needed it. 

 

  • My friends and my family, who are all as mad as me, but endlessly loyal.

 

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Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig – A Review

Story time.

As an unwritten rule, once it gets above 22 degrees Celsius in Britain, we freak out. If it gets above 25, the old ‘Hot, isn’t it?’ ‘Yeah, might be too hot’ conversation starts emerging. And then you get this past week. Consistently hitting between 26 and 31 for a full five days, people have NOT been handling it. Despite loving the sun in my head, my body hates it. I burn, not tan, I get heat induced headaches after half an hour in the sun and for some reason I look super tired all the time when it’s hot out. So this morning was a glorious surprise. I woke up, or should I say was woken up, by the sound of rain. Heavy rain. Then a breeze came through my window – a cool one. Then there was thunder. And as I lay there, listening to the sounds of stormy weather, I realised how lovely it felt to be awake and alive and feeling all those feelings and hearing all those sounds. Not least because I was excited by the prospect of being able to actually go outside for more than 20 minutes unprotected.

This leads me on to the book for this review. This book is one that I actually read last summer, during what, in retrospect, was a really bad brain… two months. It was lent to me by a friend who was lent it by his parents who said it was amazing and that everyone should read it. I don’t often pick up this kind of format, but this guy NEVER recommends books so I was kind of amazed enough to try it. Now, in a much more positive place, I read it again just to see. Here’s what I found.

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

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The blurb of this book states it is ‘more than a memoir. It is a book about making the most of your time on earth’. It’s non-fiction but written like a diary format novel – think Bridget Jones, Sufia Khan is Not Obliged or the Georgia Nicholson series (there are a lot of nervy bs in this book too). It consists mostly of linear storytelling with inserts of lists, experimental stream-of-consciousness passages and internal dialogues reported in a playscript format. You follow Matt through 8 years of his life and various mental breakdowns. You meet his parents, his colleagues and his wonderful girlfriend-now-wife Andrea. You see, step-by-step, his ebbing and flowing, his sinking and rising and, finally, his recovery and stabilising. And it gets you, it truly does. I cried, I think. I remember feeling so relieved and pleased for him, but mostly I felt hope. I didn’t realise it at the time, but so much of Matt’s experiences were a little too easy for me to empathise with. A favourite quote is ‘I had never been one of those males who were scared of tears. I was a Cure fan, for God’s sake. I’d been emo before it was a term.’ My parents both love The Cure and when I was growing up my mum used to play their video albums to get me to go to sleep. Alongside The Smiths who, admittedly, I was listening to a bit young for how nihilistic they are, I always had that understanding that having emotions is fine! Expressing your emotions is cool! Cry if you want to, saying boy don’t cry is dumb! It’s those little things sprinkled through the book that make this so easy to engage with – Matt is real, you can feel that in the writing, and it makes his journey all the more engaging.

In terms of connection, Matt Haig really nails how to communicate complex states of mind. There’s a part where Matt lists what it feels like to have a panic attack, then recalls a time where he couldn’t go to the corner shop at the end of the road alone without having one. He gives you a clinical-looking list of steps or symptoms, then chucks you into a scenario in which those things happen like an unstoppable tide. The combination of objective understanding with emotional reaction means we, as readers, can feel just as frustrated as Matt when we can’t control the outcomes. We start expecting the worst before it can ever happen, and that, my friends, it what depression feels like. He uses a metaphor of the demon on his back, licking his ears while he’s at the theatre or in bed with his girlfriend. Matt Haig’s writing is nothing if not to the point and to the heart. His language isn’t fancy, but it is poetic and emotive. You understand everything that is going on at every stage in the process, something imperative for people to read. His simplicity and honesty translates so well because it provides the experience he had to other people in understandable and relatable terms. A Sunday Times bestseller, this book has reached not only the percentage of people who suffer from mental health problems, but the 2 in 3 people who don’t. It creates such an inescapable empathy through genuine care for him and his family that you find yourself completely understanding his brain along the way. It’s pretty powerful stuff.

I did, however, have some problems with it. Matt says himself in the book that we like to compartmentalise things and give labels to what is a much more complex set of factors than just OCD, schizophrenia or depression. I get the feeling that reading this book again would be a completely different experience each time, depending on the place that you’re in when you read it. When I read it, in the midst of a suffocating bout of depersonalisation and anxiety, it made me angry. I knew I had some of these things Matt was experiencing, but I didn’t react in the same way. I didn’t lash out at my family, I could go to the shop, I didn’t feel a demon licking my ear. I found myself getting defensive that I was doing it wrong. That my brain was faulty, but faulty in the wrong way. I couldn’t relate, and I was tempted to discard the book as reductionist because of this. But on a reread, I felt entirely different. I thought Matt relayed everything perfectly, sensitively and delicately to his own truth. I found it smart and funny in ways I didn’t during the first read. This reaction, to me, is fascinating. It’s a super quick read – it only took me a few days – so i’s definitely worth trying more than once to see if the same thing happens to you.

This makes it hard for me to really review it one way or the other. Reasons to Stay Alive is a brilliant memoir of one man’s experience. In one way, it felt isolating and confusing to someone who refused to acknowledge their own struggles. In another, it is gut-wrenching and close-to-the-bone but ultimately hopeful. Most importantly, it is educational and aware. Matt Haig is careful to insert lots of information and offhand advisory sentences to those who suffer from mental illness as well as to the carers of those who do. For everyone, it is worth reading. For some, like me, it is worth reading a couple times. It is honest, brutal, and, dare I say it, a really important signpost towards a larger conversation. This book opens avenues for discussion and understanding for both people who suffer from anxiety, depression, or any other manner of mental illness, and those who don’t. All aboard the empathy train, people!