I’m currently on a train to Lincolnshire, travelling to my brother’s wedding, and instead of doing my usual train journey thing of eating followed by sleeping, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to grab a few minutes of quality writing time.
You see, there is something I have been meaning to write about, but I kept refraining from putting pen to paper (or letters to screen?) because part of me didn’t want to jinx it.
It is, essentially, a celebration.
A celebration that I am in a good place, and I’m not going to take that for granted. Because I know that not so long ago I was in a terrible place and wondered if there would ever be a way out.
I feel so much better and, having felt stressed, angry, sad, irritable and all other shades of depressed for so long and not really known it, I now feel generally calm, happy, strong, rational, clear-headed and excited about the future, and have done for several months.
In my experience of managing mental health, I once read somewhere that it is a good idea to write down what it feels like for you when you are well. There might be a few reasons for this; one idea is to read it when you are down to reassure you that you can feel well (because when you are in the throes of mental illness it may feel like you will never feel well again). Another good reason for doing this is that you are able to identify how your body feels and what your emotional state is like when you are feeling good, and, by comparison, to recognise when you aren’t feeling so good. This kind of personal understanding of your own reactions and moods can be extremely helpful if you begin to feel ill again; you can then take steps towards wellness before it becomes worse.
So, what brought about this change in me? I feel so different, I almost feel younger (which must be a sign that I felt this hopeful and happy at a time in my past; I’m thinking of my final year at uni where everything seemed to come together and I was excited about graduating and what the future would hold).
It didn’t happen by accident, that’s for sure. It’s not like I woke up one day and was like, Oh, I feel well again! (which is kind of what happens after a few days of having the flu).
There are a few things I did, and am still doing, which have helped me to feel so good in myself:
- I stopped taking the anti-depressants. Obviously, this may not work for everybody, but I realised that since I had been taking the pills, they had made my moods more erratic, and I had never had a feeling of being well. I had the dosage changed several times and nothing seemed to work. In the end, I decided I didn’t want them any more. I had actually felt better without them and thought that I would see how it went for me and if I needed something else, I would try that. It’s been a year now, and things have just got better and better. Obviously, if things had not improved, I would have probably tried a different type of pill. I’m not advocating coming off the drugs as a cure, I just had a personal feeling that they hadn’t helped me. I think it’s important to listen to your body in these situations. If you need them, take them; I know many people who have taken anti-depressants and it has worked for them, it just didn’t work for me.
- I gave up caffeine. This one is so simple, but it had the most amazing affect! I started drinking decaffeinated tea and coffee instead of the usual kind, and it didn’t take long for me to notice a difference in my moods and general feeling of well-being. I’ve always been pretty sensitive to caffeine and had avoided coffee for a long time, but cutting it out completely was probably one of the best things I did to feel well again. Now, if I drink it by accident or when there’s no alternative to decaf, I instantly feel the effects on my body. To me, the effects of caffeine on my body mimic those of anxiety (fast heartbeat, feeling a little nauseous, feeling angsty) and are just unpleasant. Without it, I feel so much better, less anxious and highly-strung.
- I had therapy. I did the NHS CBT counselling and it gave me some practical short-term strategies to manage anxiety and depression, but it didn’t go anywhere near deep enough for me. I saw a private counsellor instead. It was in central London, it was pricey, but it was an investment. I knew in the very first session that this counsellor was going to be a great help to me. I went to see her for around 9 months, every week to start with, then every two weeks when I felt better. Did I enjoy going? No. Did I always want to go to the sessions? No. But I did it because I knew it would be good for me. And it was.
- I joined a choir. I feel like a member of Glee Club… I joined a choir which sings the cheesiest songs but it’s so much fun. Every Monday night, I go to the local Salvation Army Hall and sing classic pop tunes, such as ‘True’ by Spandau Ballet and ‘How Deep Is Your Love’ by The Beegies and Take That! It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, and part of me is a little embarrassed, but the other part of me has so much fun I don’t care. I also feel part of my community and I meet other people so there are lots of good things about it. Plus the instructor makes me laugh from beginning to end. It is definitely good for my soul.
- I stopped overreacting to little things. In hindsight, I can see how stressed and irritable I was, because little mishaps and annoyances used to upset me beyond belief. Now I often find myself laughing in the face of adversity. Sometimes I have to stop a negative or stressed thought in its tracks and consciously decide not to engage with it. It works. Don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s not worth the negative effect on your body and mind.
- I stopped bringing so much work home. I realised that when it came to work, something had to give. It was a choice between my health and my job, and my health had to take priority (because, without it, I wouldn’t be able to do my job anyway). As a teacher, it is easy to take work home and the hours can stack up if you don’t notice. So I set myself some boundaries, made sure I stuck to them, and I really noticed a difference. I now feel like I have a much better work/life balance, which I once thought was absolutely impossible.
These are some of the main things I did which have helped me become a happier person in the last year or so. There are other little things which all add up, like making more time for friends, getting enough sleep, and maintaining a healthy diet.
There are so many parts of your life where changes can be made: your diet, your social life, your exercise, your work/life balance, your sleep patterns, and even if you start working on improving just one of these life areas, everything else somehow begins to fall into place too.
I am just so grateful that in the last year or so, I have made some amazingly positive changes in my life and feel so much healthier, happier and stronger. There was a time when I didn’t think this would ever be possible. I still get my moments of anger and sadness, that’s human, and they are just moments, not stretches of days or weeks like they once might have been.
I’m grateful to all my friends and family who supported me through this time, but also for my own strength and perseverance which got me through and I’m writing this partly in case I do ever feel down again; to tell myself, that yes I am strong and I can feel well and I can overcome depression and anxiety.
So, here’s to the future, and to finding strength, health and happiness.