It’s Mental Health Awareness Week this week. I’ve written a lot in the past about my own mental health struggles, but the theme for Mental Health Awareness Week this year is about “Surviving or Thriving” so I thought it would be good to talk about the difference, and how I work towards thriving, rather than just surviving.
I’ve written before about the fact that being mentally well is not merely the absence of mental illness. I think once you get over the worst of depression, and can do things like get up and go to work, do the washing up or whatever, what little mental health care is available sort of washes its hands of you. It’s usually some form of drug that gets a person to that stage where they can function with some semblance of normality, and then they’re “ok” and no longer a concern.
It took me a few years to get from the “ok” point to a point where I actually felt ok, perhaps even good. Admittedly, that process was most probably delayed somewhat by an abusive relationship, premature birth and single motherhood. But still, it took a long while. I don’t think I ever went back to “normal” – what I have now is better than the “normal” I was living with for years before my breakdown.
I still wobble from time to time; I wobbled recently, in fact. But now I know the signs, and more importantly I know what to do, to get myself back on track. I’m a single mother, and although I have some fantastic friends who will help if I ask, I don’t have a big support network; my family are mostly absent from our lives. I am self employed too, so if I don’t work I don’t get paid. I can’t afford to get ill, mentally or physically.
Here are the things I do to maintain my mental wellness:
- Supplements. I take a lot of supplements, and with good reason. There are lots I could tell you about, but I think the most important is the fish oil. I stock pile tubs of these, and I take them every day. Every single day, without fail. I truly believe that while the medication helped me to get to a point where I could get dressed and go out of the house, the fish oil is what has helped me to actually function. I came off the medication in the early stages of my pregnancy, and the fish oil is what kept my head more or less together through a traumatic and stressful year after that point. I honestly do not know why these are not available on the NHS because for me, they’ve done so much more than any chemicals did.
- Switch off the TV. It sounds weird, but the more TV I watch, the worse my mood gets. If I leave the TV alone for a few days and read books instead, my mood lifts. It doesn’t matter what I’m watching on TV either; just watching TV numbs my brain. Turns out my parents were right.
- Strict working hours. Being self employed and working from home, it’s easy for me to end up working all through the afternoon and into the evening. For a long while I was doing that every day; I would look at my to-do list and think “oh, I’ll do that one later this evening.” Now I try to be more strict about my working hours. I finish work before I go to collect S from school, and I try not to start again until I’m back from dropping her at school the next day. That also means I stay away from social media a bit more in the evenings, and it works well for me.
- Switching off notifications. A while back I was part of a thread on Twitter and my phone seemed to be dinging constantly. I was trying to work, so I switched off Twitter notifications. Then I switched off Facebook notifications, and then I switched off email notifications. For years I had resisted doing this because I’m self employed, and I run social media for several companies – so I thought I needed to get all notifications immediately. But I found that getting a Facebook notification or an email at 9pm invariably made me yell at my phone to eff off! I’ve switched off all notifications, and now I check my email and social media on my own terms. It’s much less stressful.
- Cuddles. I’m a single parent and sometimes that can be stressful, for many different reasons and in many different ways. Often S picks up on my stress, and her reaction is to want a cuddle. She’ll launch herself at me, shouting cuddle! It can be hard to deal with, especially if I’m trying to get something done or feeling ill. But I’ve found over the years that when she wants a cuddle, it’s often because I need one too. I could go on about oxytocin and all that, but actually in pure human terms, cuddling my child makes me feel better. It helps me to bring some perspective into whatever situation I’m dealing with; it grounds me; it reminds me that my number one job is keeping this small human alive and everything else can wait.
- Getting out. It took me a while, but I’ve learned that I need to go out every day, even when I don’t feel like it. Especially when I don’t feel like it. Now that S is at school I have a longer walk to drop her off and collect her, and I like that. When she was at nursery I could shuffle the 2 blocks to drop her off, and then wander down to pick her up later and some days that was all I did; it wasn’t fantastic for me, mentally or physically. The longer school run gives me a chance to think, and also to clear my head, to get my heart pumping and to blow away the cobwebs. On days were we don’t go out, I struggle. A while ago S was sick and I didn’t leave the house for almost an entire week. By the end of it, I really was not doing well. Having a garden didn’t make a difference; it’s nice to be out in the garden, but I’m still at home. I need to get out!
- Food. When you’re feeling miserable, preparing a healthy meal is the last thing you feel like doing. I do allow myself to have a day where I eat junk all day, but I try to limit that to one or two days at most. I try to make sure I have easy-access healthy food in the house so that when I don’t feel like preparing food (which is, to be honest, most days) I don’t end up eating too much junk. A couple of months ago when I was feeling really down, I actually took some money from my emergency fund to pay for a couple of weeks of food from Bodychef. You might think that’s extravagant, but I had been eating badly for a while, and I knew that without eating proper food I would never get to the point where I felt like I could stand in the kitchen and prepare proper meals. So someone delivering it to my door for a couple of weeks helped me to get back on track.
- Be sociable. I’m a single parent; I work alone at home. And I’m an introvert, so I often don’t feel like chatting to people. But I find that if I make the effort to make eye contact and chat a little here and there, my mood is better. I make small talk at the school gate; I meet friends for coffee; sometimes I even walk back from school in the mornings with another parent and have a good old chat. One of the worst parts of depression is that it makes you avoid doing the things that will make you feel better. I often don’t feel like talking to people; I feel like avoiding all conversation. I am the person who loves going to the self-service checkouts. But if I force myself to smile and say hi, often it helps to lift my mood.
- Time for me. Sometimes – just sometimes – I give myself some time off being self employed and being a mum. Sometimes I just go for a walk on my own, or do the most decadent thing I manage these days – sit in a coffee shop with a book for an hour. It’s heavenly, and something I appreciate so much more now that I only get to do it every now and then.
- Sleep. I guard my sleep like you wouldn’t believe. By 9pm I’ve switched everything off and headed for bed. I take my vitamins and extra magnesium to help me relax, read a book and switch the light off, usually by 10pm. I make sure I don’t have caffeine after lunch time so that I can sleep well, and if I’m not feeling too relaxed in the evening I’ll also take a bath with epsom salts to help me sleep. I know that I don’t function well without a decent night’s sleep, so I prioritise that over almost everything else.
- Gratitude journal. I keep a gratitude journal. Well, actually I just have a section marked “gratitude” on each day of my bullet journal. Each day I think of three things for which I am grateful – or three good things that have happened that day. I’ve started doing this with S at bedtime as well – we come up with “3 great things” each evening as part of her bedtime routine. I do believe this makes a difference to my overall mood, and on days when I’m feeling less than great, it also gives me something to look back at, and remind myself that things aren’t so bad after all.
- Routine. When I’m struggling to cope, having a fixed routine can really help. It means I don’t have to use up precious brain space on making decisions: this is just the thing I do next. S being in school really helps; we get up at the same time and leave the house at the same time. When I was really ill back in 2010, and not coping with anything, I went to group therapy. It was awful, and I honestly don’t think the content of any of the sessions helped me at all – but having to keep track of the days, and to be at the hospital three times per week meant that I had some form of routine to stick to. That helped.
Life can be stressful and rubbish, especially when you’re a single parent. But there are also plenty of reasons to smile. Depression is something I feel like I need to work to protect myself against on a daily basis. But not just to avoid depression, to survive – I work hard to ensure I thrive in my life. Life’s too short not to, isn’t it?