Wednesday, 27 August 2014

To Conquer Yourself is to Know the Way

August has been a stressful time for me. It's also been a big gaping hole in the timeline of this blog so I am striving to fill the gap with a few retrospective entries.

In the September sections, you will notice I have attributed the lack of writing to my charity work, busy schedule and rushing to complete my costume projects. While this is all true, there is another big factor which has weighed in this month, which I feel may benefit some readers, including myself, if it were discussed.

I'm going to talk to you about my mental health.

Oh hello inner demons. Not you again!

As I mentioned in my introductory post, I had, as of January, come off my medication for bipolar depression and anxiety. Eight months on now and I am still completely medication free, and tackling my illness through a combination of exercise, social support, and what can only be described as a strong, ongoing awareness of my own mental state. August has been a bit of a toughie - lots of bad days, not a lot of energy, and an unusual amount of feeling lousy. But I had an epiphany this month whereupon I suddenly realised that I class myself as a recovered depressive - no longer a depressed person, but someone with a history of problems who has those problems well in hand most of the time.

So how did I get here?

Rome Wasn't Built in a Day

Being very honest here, if someone had told me eighteen months ago that I would require neither medication nor counselling in order to get through my daily life, I would have thought the were crazier than me - and that's saying something.

Recovery is not something that happens overnight. You don't suddenly wake up one morning and just decide to get better, and then miraculously do so. Neither is there a miracle cure. The pills may take the edge off but all they can really do is prevent you from hiding in your room, crippled with fear and grief. By numbing the pain just enough they can propel the emotionless husk of your being into the real world for a few hours at a time in the hope that you might be able to do a day's work or buy your groceries or whatever it is you have to do, but that is all.

Don't get me wrong, I think medication has its place in the recovery process, but to medicate the emotion out of a human being and consider them "cured" is not the way to go.

When you're in that deep pit of despair, the light at the top feels like a mile away. To strive towards that as an end goal seems impossible, and you can exhaust yourself just at the mere thought of trying. I used to try to imagine myself as a spritely, energetic "well" person (whatever that even means) who could get out of bed when the alarm went off, get dressed without staring into the mirror in self-loathing for several minutes, eat a healthy breakfast before noon and then go out and work a productive day in a job that would give me money to be there, because I was that amazing as a human being that people actually wanted me around and would pay me to do stuff!

Useful? Me? REALLY? Oh shucks you guys...

I realise now that this was a far off fantasy, and dwelling on the distant dream was blinding me to what I could be achieving.

My goals on my road to recovery have been small. They started with trying to get dressed every day. Leave the house three times a week. Get up when I am awake, go to bed when I am tired. Eat something. It doesn't matter what. Just eat.

My physical fitness was the same (I tie the two in closely as I strongly believe the endorphins released during exercise have replaced the artificial chemicals being pumped into my brain by the medication). I started the C25K in January, and despite being a "running" programme, week 1 and 2 are mostly walking. In October I shall be running a half marathon, but back in January when I was out pounding the pavement for those early sessions, the beeps were 30 seconds apart that that was all I could run.

Start small. Aim for the achievable. And congratulate yourself when you achieve it, because it doesn't matter how small the thing is - YOU DID THE THING. And that's good.

You don't dig yourself out of the pit by climbing to the top in one go. Sometimes you need to just focus on getting yourself up off the floor first.


And let's make one thing clear - I am still not that spritely energetic "well" human being I saw in my fantasies. I still struggle to get going in the mornings. I still forget to eat breakfast, and so aim to just have a milkshake or a piece of fruit, because that is more achievable. I still have no job, or much of an idea what I want to do, or how I shall go about doing it. And I still have days where my emotions become too much and I just want to sit in my room and cry. But I try to remember the things I HAVE achieved, and the things I CAN do, because I've come a long way.

And strangely enough, those bad days are a pretty good reminder of that.

Bad Days and How To Cope With Them

Everybody has bad days. For most people, a "bad day" is often defined as a day when bad things occur. Big things or small things, it doesn't matter. Your emotional state is a response to these things happening. This is normal.

Sometimes, this emotional state occurs without any external cue whatsoever. I can't vouch for everyone, but I think this happens to most of us at some point. We all have those days where we wake up and we just feel lousy for no reason. We may try to ascribe it to something anatomical - maybe a minor illness, hormonal fluctuations, a bad night's sleep perhaps?

For people with depression, this is a regular if not constant state of mind. We feel upset, afraid, angry, useless, even suicidal for no discernible reason. But because we as human beings like to be able to assign reason, this feeling manifests itself as a very logical, rational response to a world which we see as harsh, cruel, unforgiving, pointless and full of misery. When this frame of mind is ongoing, merely existing is exhausting. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. The world is, and always will be, a terrible place. We cannot change it. We cannot beat it. Why would we want to live in it? How could we not feel this way in such a punishing universe? In the mind of the depressive, we aren't blinded to the beauty of the world by our illness - we are the ones with the vision. We've had the epiphany. The world is awful and we are the ones who know it. Everyone else is kidding themselves. It's hard to describe the joy I used to take in my own misery, but that's the best way I can put it into words. I was happy that I was so unhappy, because being unhappy meant I knew how the world worked.

I have not "lost it" - I'm the only one who knows what's going on around here!

Even now, this crushing feeling of worthlessness and despair still arises at times, often for no real reason. It brings with it all the accompanying problems - lack of energy, poor eating habits, restlessness and lethargy (these are a fantastic combination, you really should try it sometime) and a sense of utter hopelessness so acute it feels like clarity.

I can try and be rational about it when those moments strike, but it's one of the toughest challenges I face on the road to recovery. I can tell myself "this feeling is happening because the serotonin levels in my brain are dropping too quickly, and the neural receptors... blah-de-blah-de-blah..." but it is hard to dismiss thoughts that manifest themselves with such rationality and poignancy. But perhaps the most terrifying thing is the fear that this is a sign of a major relapse - a sign that what I thought was recovery was in fact just a prolonged cycle of hypo-mania and now I'm just cycling back into depression.

One of the hard things about being mentally ill for so long is that you forget what being "well" actually feels like, especially with something like bipolar where feeling "good" is actually a symptom, and you have to keep evaluating yourself and making sure you are experiencing the right kind of "good" and not the hyperactive, over-spending, physically exhausting, self-endangering kind of "good" that generally prompts doctors to start popping open the Valium and shunting you to the top of the waiting list for psych assessments.

But once you can shake that particular fear, the bad days do actually serve a purpose. They act as a gauge for how far I have come, and a reminder of how much of a different person I am now compared to eighteen months ago.

Okay, so I am not the chipper, happy soul I imagined I would be. I am not an indestructible pillar of emotional strength. I am not an uber-productive money-earning go-getting superhuman-type gal.

But I think it's safe to say I can now live with the person I am. And that's good.

Annie the Mighty. My role model in terms of self-acceptance. Now I need my own theme song...

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