Monthly Archives: May 2021

Exit strategy..

I’ve had a bit of a breakthrough this week on what feels like a bit of crash course in mental health self-awareness. It feels silly really, I’ve done countless courses on mental health awareness for work, and it all makes sense – but it’s a whole different gravy applying it to yourself when you’re in the throes of it compared to if you were spotting the signs in a team mate or employee, or a friend even.

The first obstacle is acknowledging and admitting that you are in a position of mental ill health. It took my boss to point that out to me (in a gentle way). We are conditioned societally to be strong, to cope with things. I’m not sure that it’s specifically true that it’s more so for men, anecdotally people seem to think so – it doesn’t really matter though, I certainly found it tough to accept. I’ve never been a “man up” kind of man, but I think we all naturally feel a little disappointed in ourselves if we are finding it difficult to cope with life.

Exposing that vulnerability filled me with an enormous sense of dread – people might judge, people might see me as a burden, people might see me as weak. In addition to that, people have their own problems – if you fall into the trap of trying to rank them, you end up feeling like you’re really making a mountain out of a molehill. I knew there were options for referring to NHS treatments but well, the NHS is really rather busy right now what with the whole pandemic thing, right?

That process of opening up was actually positive – some intuitive people probed (gently), others I selectively reached out to were receptive, kind and supportive. Realising that really recovery was only going to be driven by myself, nobody else has a magic wand to ‘fix’ me, that reluctance to share with people diminished. It’s helped me realise that when others are suffering I don’t need to feel pressured to solve their problems, but to be open to listening to them.

So by the time referrals to NHS CBT therapy and talking to a therapist via our Employee Assistance Programme (which I’m very lucky to have) had materialised into appointments I was actually already on the right road to recovery, definitely ably assisted by the group I talked about in my last blog post, as well as some great book recommendations. There were, and have been, and probably will be, bumps in the road – but the broad trajectory was improvement from the low base of going to bed and not caring whether I woke up again or not.

On Monday the NHS webinar I attend was addressing people who literally aren’t able to function – helping them form strategies to be able to build up to the basic tasks of managing their hygiene, their home and their work. Not really relevant for me, but reassuring that I’ve been really good at staying on top of those things. I’ve not shunned what social contact I’ve been able to have and I’ve been doing really well at staying physically active, eating well and hydrating.

My work-organised therapist is more bespoke but still centred around CBT – they’ve been really positive sessions, and the session today probably confirmed that landmark moment. Next week we’re going to spend the session mapping out an exit strategy from being in therapy. A lot of my issues are probably akin to the grieving cycle, unfortunately some of that just takes time to process, but the CBT techniques combined with the other extra-curricular steps I’ve taken have undoubtedly helped make more sense of and apply some structure to that processing.

I’ll miss my weekly catch-ups with Holly as they’ve been incredibly helpful and affirming, but equally, I’d rather not need to have them. Whilst I’m finding it increasingly less relevant I will stick to the NHS webinars too – each week we fill in a questionnaire to ascertain where we’re at with various measures – a couple of times that’s prompted a clinician to call me to check in, which at first was frustrating as it’s an indicator that those scores aren’t great, but latterly it’s more of a comfort that there’s a safety net there if needed. I think they have it set to a bit of a hair trigger personally, but better that than the other way, right?

More than anything though this process has helped me to correct the stigma I attached to my own mental health – not for others suffering, but just for myself. Mental Health is a shit term really – mental health should be the default, shouldn’t it? It should mean you are mentally healthy, and when things go awry then that is mental ill health. Just as with your physical health, there’s a sliding scale – we could all be more physically healthy despite describing ourselves as fit and well, the same goes for your mind. And of course that doesn’t even touch on the fact that the two are inextricably linked.

Maintaining good mental health is a never ending process just like maintaining your physical health. I think we all know that, but can lose sight of the muscle-memory nature of that when things start to go wrong. Just because you’ve risen from the pit of despair doesn’t make the kind of tools and techniques you used to ascend any less relevant. Perversely, I can see a path to actually being a much more content person than I was back when I thought I was a content person – but that will always require incremental adjustments and work to maintain.

So I’m feeling good about transitioning away from being ‘in therapy’ to more wholly self-managing the things I’m working through – and frankly, most of that management has been by me, but with a great support network of family, friends, colleagues and professionals when needed. I suppose the moral of the story, as ever, is that if you are struggling then please please do reach out for help. Particularly in the wake of 15 months of severe restrictions on our freedom, it feels like there could be a secondary pandemic of mental ill health issues on the horizon.

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I have a cunning plan, m’lud..

Amidst the swirling vortex of proactive research (to me, my mind was like a technical problem I might encounter – it’s not working how I’d like, I’ll Google it and find a fix), CBT webinars, CBT therapy sessions, private writing therapy and support from friends there’s been a really helpful group I’ve been participating with on Facebook. I reference it very fleetingly in a previous post, but it has been truly helpful – as indeed have most of the things I’ve been dabbling with.

It’s a fairly simple formula, which I’ll be about to make sound even more simple. My friend Naomi set it up – she described it as an opportunity to ‘unfuck yourself’ in her typically direct style. Grounded in elements of what CBT and NLP try to teach you, with a few lashings of mindfulness and – frankly – common sense, all wrapped up in a lovely supportive environment with other people with similar aims. It sounds very fluffy when you read that back, it’s really not – it’s about positive affirmation though, and trying to – again, paraphrasing Naomi, rewinding your tape and recording something better over it.

The basic tenet is to follow seven steps every day for a 30 day cycle. Seven is an auspicious number if you have certain beliefs (I probably don’t), and 30 days is what NLP or CBT will tell you is the time you’d need to change your habits or reprogram your neural-pathways. It’s not just about mental health though, it’s about physical health too – the two are of course inextricably linked to one another as I suspect I found to my detriment when I had my vasovagal issues a few weeks ago.

Without spoilering too much (I’ll link to Naomi’s page at the end so you can read the details), it’s really quite a simple programme – but there’s no compulsion to nail everything every time, and just because your 30 days finish it doesn’t mean you can’t recommence with a new round of them.

First up – eat healthily, and do that in a way that has meaning for you. For me I track my calories in and out, I’ve been doing that for nearly a year because I wanted to get myself in shape having let myself get quite overweight. Ironically at the moment as I’m close to target I’ve been quite lax on this in recent days, I’m planning on being sensible again from next week. That doesn’t mean dieting per say, just be mindful of what you’re putting in your body and what effect it may have on you.

Secondly is hydrating – again, something I’ve been good at – not least because you can chug a load of water if you’re feeling hungry when limiting calorie intake and make yourself feel full, but hydration in general is bloody important and overlooked often for those of us with busy lives. Lay off the alcohol (something I’d already been doing, never having been a big home drinker), don’t just drink caffeinated things although the odd one is okay. Try to make it mostly water.

Third is getting physical – of course, that will vary for people depending on their mobility or fitness levels. But at the very least spend 30 minutes a day outside, being active. For me of course that centres around playing football as much as humanly possible, or going out for walks. For others it might be a stroll around the garden, it might even just be sitting outside with a good book, or appreciating the scenery or birdsong. Get some vitamin D in you, escape the confines of four walls.

Fourth is finding the time to be creative or to enjoy simply playing. This could be anything, play an instrument, write a blog post, read a book, take photographs, do a jigsaw, paint or draw something. Probably best to avoid immersing in a computer game (for this purpose at least, if not in general), you could learn something new either just for the fun of it or even for professional or academic furtherment. For me this tends to be writing, messing around with music or reading.

Fifth is hard. A social media de-tox. When it started I was doing quite well at this – restricting myself to either two half hour windows of usage, or one solid hour per day. I activated scheduled quiet mode on my phone’s Facebook app and was doing quite well at sticking to it at first, then found the ‘deactivate for 15 minutes’ button quite easy to press. That said, when I do indulge most of my activity is centred around the group associated with this scheme, I don’t ‘doom scroll’ endlessly, I’ve done well at steering clear of more toxic environments like Twitter and Instagram. It feels shameful in some ways to find it so difficult to lay off Facebook, but my usage stats show that I’m using it less often and for less time than before.

Sixth sounds simple too – rest. Go to bed at a sensible time, get up at a sensible time, and actually get up – don’t set an alarm and languish. I’m not bad at this to be fair, except for the going to bed at a sensible time bit. I suppose having a 9-5ish job lends itself well to that pattern – but even before starting this I’ve been making a point of getting up and active at weekends or bank holidays too. Past Alan could easily have languished in bed for half the day if given the chance! I think we all know deep down that if we get up when we wake up we generally feel better than snoozing again. By the same token, and one I can definitely get better at, if you need to rest outside of your normal sleeping/waking patterns, then you bloody well should.

Seventh is the worst, but probably the most important. You need to write something positive about yourself – something that you believe. It feels uncomfortable for most people because we’re not encouraged to be self-aggrandising. This isn’t that, this is extolling your virtues to yourself, and deep down you know you have them – those things about yourself you’re proud of. Write them down, take a photo of yourself with it, save the paper, tell yourself out loud a few times what you’ve written. Try to believe it. After thirty days, retrieve the notes and read them back. Some of us have braved sharing these in our group, you don’t have to. Full body photos are a good idea if you want to track progress on losing weight or inches, but also taking body language cues.

It’s also important to track each day – just a simple notepad could do the trick, I reverted to corporate mode and made myself a PowerPoint template to fill in, I just made traffic lights for each of the seven steps. Social media was stubbornly amber, the rest were mostly green. I left space to note what I’d eaten, exercise I’d taken, random thoughts for the day, how things felt. It really did me a favour because a lot of the work I’ve been set for my assorted therapies have been centred around these kind of things – not that I’m looking for shortcuts, but it’s great to have some reassurance that I’m already working on things that are compatible with these solutions to.

So did I enter the process broken? Almost certainly. Am I fixed? No, not yet – whilst I’m sure I knew already that there is no magic wand for working through depression and anxiety, we are all individuals after all, what I have been able to do is have tangible evidence of progress compared to where I was. I also have tangible evidence of where I might have slipped back a little and had bad days, and I’ve learned not to beat myself up about that largely thanks to a wonderfully supportive group of folk who are trying to overcome their own challenges too. And hopefully I’ve been able to offer that same encouragement to them when they feel low.

We all have challenges in life – and if you look very hard you’ll find reasons to wonder why you might not be coping with yours when someone elses are so much worse. But that doesn’t invalidate how you may be feeling, whether you are able to function or cope. A non-judgmental and supportive environment is really invaluable in helping you to realise this.

Being nice to yourself, and others – who knew that might make your world seem like a better place? It sounds so simple doesn’t it? But if it was, then the world would be a happier place. All we can really do is our bit within it.

If you’d like to read Naomi’s much more succinct and less waffly guide to the Cunning Plan, then it’s here.

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