There is something rather special about being nuzzled by a horse. Whenever life got too much, whenever I felt the stress building up inside me, I’d always find solace by sitting in my pony’s manger. The rhythmic sound of him munching hay, the occasional ruffle of my hair; that was all that was needed to calm me down.
I no longer have the luxury of being able to run up to the stables when things get too much, instead I have to behave like an adult, remain composed, keep going, pretend everything is OK.
This week is mental health awareness week and I feel finally, after 34 years, that it is time to talk about what life is like when you suffer mental illness. Up until now I’ve always been afraid to share. What if people think less of me? What if it goes against me when I’m up for a promotion? What if a future employer thinks I’d be too much trouble? I’m sure I’m not alone in asking these questions which is why I want to share; to say it’s OK not to be OK. But also, to give hope. Just because you are suffering, doesn’t mean you always have to suffer; it doesn’t mean you can’t still live a successful and fulfilling life. It doesn’t mean you can’t be normal, because normal is what you want it to be.
Your never know what anyone is really going through
We are often very quick to judge others, for good and bad. We see friends’ social media feeds and think “Wow, what a wonderful time they are having”, “I wish I could eat as much as them and still be thin”, “I wish my relationship was as good as theirs”, “I wish I was as happy as them”. We also look at others and think “Gosh, how could they have let themselves get to that state”, “Why won’t she leave that relationship, I’d never stay with someone who treated me like that”, “How hard is it to turn up to work on time”. I’m sure you get the gist.
What we don’t know is the reality of what is truly going on. How could a bright 17 year old kid, with a bright future ahead of her drop out of school only months before her exams? The results were a given, either all A’s or A*s. 3 different university offers lined up. Good at sport. Neither popular nor unpopular, probably the best place to be at school. Friendly, polite, helpful, happy. And yet one day, she went into school and said “I’m leaving, that’s it”. And I never did turn up to school again.
How could nobody see that coming? How was it, that this kid, (a.k.a me) had managed to lead such a life that not a single person knew what was going on underneath the facade? I’m not an exception though, there are many more like me who have been suffering and continue to suffer in silence. My situation might be different to others, but people you meet and interact with every day will be going through their own battles which you will be completely unaware of.
Always be kind, you never know what someone is truly going through
Today isn’t the day to talk about my past, just know it’s turbulent and has left me scarred. Invisible scars that I will wear for the rest of my life. Scars that surface at the most inappropriate moments, that drag me down when life is good. Scars that cause me irrational fear and sadness, that threaten to tip the balance of life. However, scars that I have learnt to use to push me forward, to help me achieve, to be better and do better. Scars that I have embraced, that I work with rather than against.
And that is my mental health story. Not one to be ashamed of, but instead one to be proud of. I am a great believer that you are capable of whatever you set your mind to and that has been my prerogative in life: to be successful in spite of the challenges that life has thrown at me.
Since it is mental health awareness week I wanted to share three tips that have really helped me out over the years and that I would do well in remembering when times get tough.
1. Your focus determines your reality
Having a focus has to be without a doubt one of the most powerful tools in my repertoire. The best way I can describe depression, other than the overwhelming feeling of sadness, loneliness and emptiness, is the inability to muster motivation. Everything feels like hard work and making the right choice becomes impossible.
However, if you have a plan, and a goal, and you are focused and committed to achieving that goal, which you likely set during a happy period, then when you do sink into a low all you have to do is follow the steps that are already laid out. It doesn’t make it easy, and I certainly try and find every excuse to avoid it, but the routine is there, it is no longer about making a decision or making a choice, it is simply a matter of completing the steps, no matter how hard they feel at the time. And that process is what gets me to the other side each time because I know deep down, that continuing to take one step in front of the other, no matter how slow I may be taking them, will make everything better in the not too distant future.
The biggest rewards come from the biggest challenges
That is one of the reasons why I love setting myself a challenge. It gives me something to work towards. Having announced to the world of Facebook and WordPress that I was heading to Sierra Leone to run a half marathon meant I had to keep on training and I had to keep on running, even when I didn’t want to. And getting out, doing exercise, getting a sweat on and breathing in fresh air is the best medicine you could ask for.
And when I look back at all the challenges I have faced (and the ones I have signed up to!), I can’t help but think of the quote “The biggest rewards come from the biggest challenges”. And it’s true; the harder you have to work to achieve something the sweeter the victory.
2. Fill your lungs, clear your mind
I particularly like setting myself challenges that involve the great outdoors. Not only do they give me the focus, but they make sure I get the best medicine on the market: fresh air!
There is something magical about walking alone in a wood, listening to the leaves and branches crunch under your feet whilst the birds sing around you. It is just as magical as sitting on the beach listening to waves as they crash against the shore, or hiking high up in the mountains, the breeze whisking your hair around your face. Being outdoors, surrounded by nature, truly helps me relax. I often find the thoughts that so often consume my mind disappear as I focus instead on what is surrounding me.
I remember once when I was a young kid (under 10), I went for a walk through the woods on my own near the caravan park we were staying at. I walked deeper and deeper through the woods until I found a meadow where I decided to sit down. There were 100 rabbits in that meadow, all completely unperturbed by the fact that I was sitting there. This one rabbit edged closer and closer to me until it was mere metre or so from my feet. All the anger and sadness that had led me to march off on my own completely evaporated as I became mesmerised by the flurry of activity in that field.
Nature has that impact on me (and I’m sure I’m not alone). It brings me back to the moment, it helps me focus on the now, and it re-balances the perspective in my life. Add a challenge in nature and suddenly the benefits are exponentially higher.
3. In a world where you can be anything, be kind
The final tip, and by no means the last, is the power of kindness. There is nothing more rewarding than having a positive impact on others, and there is nothing more destructive than being horrible.
I can’t think of a single time when I have had an argument that has made me feel good. I might like to think it does because “I was right”, but the reality is that it never gives me a warm fuzzy feeling inside. In fact, it only serves to make me feel worse about myself. However, when I build someone up, when I help someone out, I am always rewarded not only with my own happiness but with kindness from others. There is no such thing as small act of kindness; every act creates a ripple that continues giving.
The energy we put out, is the energy we get back
Whether you want to call it karma or not, you attract the energy you put out. One of the most valuable lesson I have ever learnt is the fact that you have a choice about how something makes you feel. Someone else doesn’t make you angry, you allow yourself to become angry. A great example for me would be if someone cuts you up on a roundabout and then swears at you because they haven’t actually realised they are in the wrong, you have two choices. To get angry back and then think “Oh my God, what an idiot. I can’t believe he swore at me. Did you see that? He was in the wrong, I was right. You give way to the right. I’m going to follow him and read him the highway code”. Just writing that has made me tense. If on the other hand my thought process was “What a numpty… what’s for tea tonight?”. Which one will I feel better about? The second.
That’s why it pays to be kind, not only are you doing everyone else a favour, but you are doing yourself a favour too. And of course, you never know what that other person is going through, they likely have their own internal battle, just like that 17 year old girl with a bright future ahead of her who left school, home and her country, and nobody saw it coming. But there is always a final straw.
If you are suffering in silence, don’t. There are so many places you can help. Don’t suffer in silence.