“Part of growing is going through painful transitions and messing up a bit.”
Hearing of my sister’s battle with mental health over many years is difficult and saddening, but above all it inspires in me immense pride and respect. Largely independently, she has reached a place of mental and physical stability, which she constantly works towards in every life aspect.
The following interview is conducted as the first in a series of articles aiming to enlighten stories as well as strategies related to mental health.
When did you first understand that you were depressed and anxious?
I knew something was wrong years ago, but I didn’t have any labels to put on it like ‘anxiety’ or ‘depression’. I was about fourteen or fifteen and for various reasons I’d been self harming and binge eating for a while. I started drinking and smoking and looking for comfort in all the wrong places – I would numb myself in front of the TV, or self harm, restrict my calories then binge eat, get drunk, or look for attention from boys. I cried myself to sleep a lot and I knew there was something wrong after a year or two of this behaviour but I had no idea how to go about changing. I felt like I had no real reason to complain; I had a family, friends, a roof over my head. I thought I was being spoilt and hated myself for it, which fed into the cycle of depression and anxiety making it hard to seek help. Eventually I went to therapy, it took a while to find the right person and to figure out what worked for me but I got there in the end through a combination of professional help and self care.
“I’ve learned that applying discipline, in the right balance, is one of the most loving things you can do for yourself.”
How do you go about practicing self-care? Where did you learn how to do so?
I am constantly learning how to practice self-care. The first time I properly, regularly took it upon myself to do it was by doing yoga everyday at home with a Marlon Braccia DVD. It literally cured my back pain, and helped me calm my nerves, specifically my breathing, which really helped with anxiety and panic attacks. Since then, I’ve gone on a journey exploring a yogic lifestyle. I learned about the eight-limbed path and started personalising it and applying parts of it to my life. (There’s a great book called ‘Do Your Om Thing’ by Rebecca Pacheco that partly guided me on how to do this). I also started meditating quite seriously, and that has had the most profound impact on my mental health. It’s always a work in progress, and there’s a lot to learn.
I’ve learned that applying discipline, in the right balance, is one of the most loving things you can do for yourself. So when I’m best taking care of myself I’m working with some non-negotiable rules: no alcohol, or coffee, regular exercise, regular meditation, having a clean living environment… and so on. Over the years I’ve come to know what triggers me, and what I can get away with, and I know I’m at my best when I have a stable routine in my life. It takes a while to get those foundations in place and it’s actually a lot of hard work at first, but once they’re there I feel empowered to do more. If you want to get good at anything in life it requires discipline, practice and consistency. The same goes for self-care. Sometimes I go off the wagon and need to remind myself of that, but in time I come back to a healthy place. Part of my self-care is accepting that, too! Part of growing is going through painful transitions and messing up a bit – so a gentle discipline that has room for natural human errors works best for me.
I also became more frugal and minimalist over the years, with the help of my partner and online blogs. Letting go of all the junk I’d accumulated through so-called “retail-therapy” was such a relief. I let go of a lot of makeup I was wearing since my new vegan diet had improved my skin, and began accepting myself as I was, without makeup or jewellery. Most importantly, I learned to really appreciate and enjoy the simple things in life. Being able to save money at the same time is a huge bonus, since dealing with a financial burden is often a strong trigger for depression and anxiety.
Finally, I really honour self-knowledge. This is probably something I learned from my parents. It’s actually one of the eight-limbs of the Yogic path, but I’ve always naturally honoured that. I kept journals throughout my childhood, and in adulthood I’ve always been curious about who I am and how that evolves and changes as I grow. It’s easy to be fooled or pressured into thinking you are a certain way, and it’s far less easy, in my opinion, to be authentic and true to yourself. When you know who you are it’s easier to look at the things in your life and decide whether or not they’re truly serving you. You get better at learning how to thrive, not just how to cope.
Do you see any shift in society’s attitudes towards mental health problems?
I think there’s a lot more transparency and information out there now than there was fifteen years ago. Thanks to the popularity of blogging we can have honest conversations with each other about our experiences of mental health, and there’s a strong and positive emphasis on healthy living and self-care in mainstream culture now.
Sometimes it can get a bit overwhelming though; it’s like we’ve opened the floodgates and everyone’s become a life coach/nutritionist with endless advice to expound, so it can be hard to find your own path and stick to it, with so many ‘experts’ vying for our attention on how we can live better and reminding us of all the things we’re doing wrong, it can actually induce quite a bit of anxiety! It’s great that we have organisations and individuals working to lift the stigma and taboo of mental health, but we still have a lot of work to do in terms of understanding how to treat mental illness most effectively.
What role do you think social media has to play here?
I think the platform of social media is a great place to normalise and encourage conversations about mental health. I think, more than anything, people suffering with mental health problems need to feel empowered to talk openly, to seek help, and to practice self care, and social media has the reach to be able to create supportive communities. Unfortunately, a lot of it is polluted with vanity and self-promotion, so it can turn into a place where people feel pressured to only present the most perfect angles of their lives. The advertising industry has a big part in fuelling this, unfortunately it’s what sells and in our current economic system that’s something we’ll have to put up with, so I think it will be the task of activists and mental health organisations to run campaigns to counteract that.
“Being happy is a very loving and generous act!”
What helpful advice have you been given?
Here are my favourites that I continuously come back to:
“Part of growing up is being okay with the fact that somewhere along the road, you’re guaranteed to disappoint someone.” My partner and best friend gave this advice to me regularly at one point in my life and it made me braver and more resilient in dealing with other people’s expectations and judgements. This is always a tricky thing to manage; of course we want to listen and learn from others, but at some point we have to stay true to who we are, and it’s likely that’s going to upset some people. Letting go of people-pleasing requires constant work from me, but gives back constant rewards.
“Always question authority” was strongly ingrained in me from my parents, but the first time I heard it loud and clear was when I was twelve in a drama class with my teacher Martin Beaumont. He was one of those great teachers that managed to weave in moral advice into his lessons, and at such an important time in my pre-teens this was so powerful for me and really resonated, especially coming from an authority figure. Later, this advice helped so much when shopping around for therapists, or reading internet advice about anxiety, or taking any advice for that matter!
“It’s your responsibility to keep your own flame bright; no one else can do that for you.” Sadie Nardini, yoga teacher. She really drills this point home with her Core Strength Vinyasa style yoga. Learning to be your own rock is painful sometimes, and it might be a long process, but it’s worth it. It seems like such a common trap to turn to external things to feed us happiness, when so much of our own happiness depends on our active creation of it, within ourselves. I don’t believe external things aren’t responsible in part for our unhappiness; that’s another kind of trap (the kind that suggests our external environment should be no hindrance to our wellbeing) but I do believe that the over-reliance on external things to keep us entertained or happy gets us into deep trouble.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle”. I don’t know who originally said this but I love the message of compassion and forgiveness behind it. It helps with forgiving those that have hurt you, and gives you perspective not to take things too personally. Also it’s a reminder not to judge others too quickly; on the outside I may have looked strong and happy to a lot of people who had no idea what I was struggling with on the inside.
“Take what works for you and leave out what doesn’t”. My Mum’s customisation approach to life is empowering and very pragmatic!
What unhelpful advice have you been given?
“Never give up” – I don’t like it when this generic motivational message is applied to everything in life. It’s perfectly ok and healthy to give up on the things that are no longer serving you! I wish it was “make a pro’s and con’s list and give up if you think it’s the most rational thing to do”, but I can see that’s a lot less catchy…
“Stay positive no matter what” and “positive vibes only” are both sentiments that arise in the kind of advice that’s well meaning, but tragically naive in my opinion. Where would we be without negative emotions? We need to learn to use them effectively, not suppress or eradicate them. Anger can be useful in establishing our boundaries, grief and sadness are inevitable emotions that are part of human life and help us grow into mature and balanced individuals, we need not be afraid of them and the vulnerability they bring out in us. Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability sends a powerful message to this effect.
What advice would you give to someone who suffers with depression and anxiety?
Be kind to yourself; it’s so easy to feel ashamed and angry with ourselves when we’re not living up to our ideas of how we should be – but it’s a fact that everyone struggles in life, and everyone occasionally needs help. Admit that you need and deserve help. Express to close people around you that you’re going through a hard time and might need a bit of extra care while you work through it. If you’re alone, you might want to try calling a helpline like the Samaritans. Book an appointment with your GP, book a consultation with a qualified therapist and don’t be afraid to shop around to find the right person for you. I personally had trouble getting to this stage at first because I was caught up in feeling ashamed, selfish, and undeserving of help. If you’re feeling like that, ask yourself; who in this world is undeserving of health and happiness? If you’re not healthy and happy, it’s much harder to contribute positively to the world around you. The world needs you to be at your best, so it is no selfish act to take care of yourself. Being happy is a very loving and generous act!
What is your experience with depression and anxiety? Leave a comment below or send me a message.