Your story matters

I just received a sudden message from a good friend: they’ve posted a piece of writing online and wanted me to read it. It was a candid, heartfelt piece about mental health and it’s going to really impact those who come across it. They felt inspired by my writings to hammer out some thoughts and reflections on their own mental health. I thought yes, amazing! They’ve written something incredible about themselves and now they’re going to become a part of a community who will read what they have to say, reflect on it, feel inspired by it and then maybe be inspired to talk about themselves, too.

I’ve had this blog for around two years now and my activity has always been sporadic at best, I tend to write when I feel like it and I’m glad for that, personal writings should stem from organic feelings and not a sense of necessity. My posts have attracted discussion over time because they’ve been natural and sporadic; I’ve had messages from people expressing encouragement, giving lovely feedback, or sometimes taking a moment to share something about themselves with me too. Some people have gone on to write journals for themselves, have felt inspired to try a different approach to their mental health, or as is the case with my wonderful friend have scattered parts of their lives on the internet like the stardust they are.

I had no idea the kind of impact this blog would have on the people around me. It’s really quite surreal to think that friends have seen me share thoughts on my mental health and have decided to start jotting down their own thoughts, be that for themselves or for others to read. Bear with me on this one but I think our lives pan out like books, books that aren’t complete until the day we die. We can talk about the chapters we’ve already written, consider the one we are currently writing, and wonder about the ones yet to come. These stories- our personal stories- are what inspire others, that is by far the most important thing I have learned from running this blog. When you share your story you will undoubtedly inspire other people to start thinking about theirs too. Go, talk to someone you trust, write a blog, write for yourself, share an anonymous post, jot something down in the Notes app, just start talking about yourself.

Some tips for dealing with anxiety: 2019 edition

Hello it’s me again, it’s been five weeks since my last post and now I’m ready to throw some more words at you all. Last year I wrote a post sharing some things that I like to do to handle my anxiety and amazingly it benefitted a few people who got back to me and shared bits of their stories with me. It’s a year on from then thereabouts and I thought I’d put out an updated post with the things I’m now doing to alleviate my anxiety and panic attacks. I don’t expect these to really resonate with a lot of people because they’re my own personal philosophies and methods but if it so much as gets you thinking about how you deal with your anxiety then I’ll be happy.

Over the years I’ve come to embrace some different philosophies, but stoicism has remained close to my heart throughout the years. To those who know me you’ll probably think ‘what the fuck, he’s the least stoic person I know’ and I say well yes that’s true but I’m not talking about hiding my emotions, I’m talking more about how stoics approach anxiety. I won’t bog this down in philosophy, you can read some amazing books which I’ll put into a list at the end of this post. The thing that has stayed with me a lot going into 2019 is how I’ve tried to build some separation between myself and the things that are going on in my life, like work, finances and relationships etc. I’ve always been prone to letting each take over my life, so much so that I get overwhelmed quite easily and quite frequently. One thing I try to do now is to look at them for what they are- yes friendships have frayed, yes finances can be difficult and yes I am about to make a huge move into a very scary career where everything is uncertain, but I’ve come to see through little tests over time that when actually thrust into these situations I can handle myself pretty well. To give an example, anxiety is a bit like having a fear you’ll drown when you get put in water, that is until you actually get in the water and realise you’re not drowning at all but rather you’re floating. Taking the plunge is so incredibly hard when your anxiety is debilitating, but if you start as small as you need to and challenge yourself in manageable ways you’ll start to see that actually you can handle yourself. My first major challenge was going to the cinema, a guaranteed place for me to panic. I brought my dad along and I spent the entire thing wriggling in my seat, grabbing the arm rests, even occasionally grabbing my dad but I survived it and that really does create a lasting effect on how much power your anxiety has over you.

In recent times this has really been a big one for me but it’s also the most personal so I’m really not expecting anyone to read this and think ‘holy shit I’ve found the kryptonite for my anxiety.’ When I was doing my teacher training in London I sat to myself one night and thought about how my life had changed since graduating university in 2018 and I realised something pretty huge: had I have not made the decisions that I did in the preceding twelve months, I probably wouldn’t have been able to handle the pressures that came with being in London. In July 2018 I was given an opportunity to move to China and teach English for a year; I was elated at the time, I looked up every aspect of the city I was moving to in minute detail I was that excited. However, I started to panic as my departure date neared. How would I survive in a place so far from home where I might drown without my comforts being close to me? This thought circulated in my mind a lot to the point where I felt so anchored to little routines that I couldn’t envisage leaving home and surviving. I backed out, and for the next 10 months roughly I felt such a deep regret about my decision. Fast forward to London, I’m in a place where I’m without a lot of my home comforts: I don’t have a games console to relax with, I don’t have the familiarity of my room, life made the gym pretty much inaccessible and I couldn’t really eat in the way I usually would either. These all might seem rather trivial but a year ago even the thought of being without them, well, stopped me from embarking on what would have been an amazing journey. Yet I survived, dare I say I had an amazing time even though I had absolutely none of them. I made some absolutely incredible friends, enjoyed some wonderful experiences and come September I’ll be embarking on my journey as a teacher. The thought that occurred to me after that night in my room is maybe these things all happened for a reason: deciding not to go to China, having multiple derailments because I couldn’t quite get my gym routine perfected or organise my life the exact way I wanted to. Had I have not had those experiences, I wouldn’t have had the urgency to throw myself into the uncertainty of moving down to London. Despite all the fears and anxieties you have right now, maybe you’re exactly where you need to be on your journey. It’s okay to have those fears, it’s okay that your decisions haven’t quite made life go the way you want it to; it’s all absolutely fine because you’re right where you need to be and in the end, it’ll be okay. When I tell myself this it packs a real punch because I think of the experiences that I’ve had. I urge you to give it a go, think of how far you’ve come and what you’ve overcome and see yourself on a journey, not squashed underneath the challenges that face you right now.

I’ll come away from the abstract stuff now, if you’ve managed to make it this far! The things I’ve shared with you have definitely helped me in recent times and I hope I’ve put it across in a way that might help you to give them a go. If not, please do feel free to reach out for a chat. So this year I’ve given meditation a go beyond sitting on the carpet cross-legged for a few minutes waiting for the magic to happen (spoiler: I cramped up, still had mental illness, 0/10 for meditation). When I worked at Apple I downloaded this app called Ten Percent Happier, it’s one of a myriad of meditation apps available that come with various topics like mindfulness, sleep, activity, thoughtfulness, kindness and what not. I’ll be very honest, I jumped on the sleep section and haven’t really left it because my sleep is terrible, most of my panic comes at night in bed so logically I’m going to go for the sleep meditations. I’ve tried a lot of them and honestly guided meditation is a real winner, there have been many occasions where I’ve fallen asleep way before the end of a 15-minute meditation and this is coming from someone who takes an hour plus to fall asleep. Most sleep meditations encourage you to do as little active thinking as possible and instead focus on things you can feel and hear, like the weight of your body pressing down into the bed. I feel like this kind of meditation can be quite useful for someone with anxiety, especially when it comes out a lot at night. Sleep meditations can take you outside of your own head and because you’re thinking about what your senses are telling you, actually your time spent meditating can lead to some very peaceful, serene moments. When your mind is constantly racing, never underestimate how powerful just five minutes of peace feels.

Those are the main new things I’ve learned this year, I like this kind of practice because it’s nice to see how your relationship with your mind changes over time. The methods I have now are less challenge-oriented and definitely more holistic; in earlier times I used to set myself challenges, make sure I was constantly organised etc and while these definitely still have a place in my life I think it’s useful to dedicate some of your time and energy to finding some kind of peace in yourself, either through reflecting on what you have achieved so far, appreciating that life is a journey full of successes and defeats or taking some time each night to slip into quietness. You deserve peace and I hope these tips help you find it.

The books I really like:

Marcus Aurelius, the Meditations. (This book is almost always in my bag)
Seneca, On the Shortness of Life.
Andy Weir, The Martian. (odd choice I know but Mark Watney gets stranded on Mars and just takes it as it comes)
The Dalai Lama, The Art of Happiness.

Some good apps and sites:

Ten percent happier
Calm
YouTube (It’s free…)
Podcasts

Change

Change is odd, isn’t it? I think there’s a biological inconsistency in humans and it really bugs me. We’re almost programmed to crave new experiences aren’t we? For example we like to meet new people, try new food, listen to new music, change jobs and relocate; we need change or else life gets stale and us along with it. However because we’re a deeply flawed species we also sometimes get really fucking scared of change, especially the kind that wrestles control over your life away from you. We hate having to make these leaps of faith because although we like change we only feel comfortable embracing it if it’s safe to do so. If change is thrust upon us we get all confused, enter Peacock mode and find a nice pit of sand to bury our heads under. All of this is bollocks if you’re the type of person who appreciates life’s tendency to disregard stability and I say you’re probably wasting your time reading the ramblings of a man currently sat on the train going to his new life in London trying to make some sense of what’s going on in his mind.

I’ve said to myself for years that I really need to be more in the moment, I always think about what I’m going to be doing in the future, that could be either the week ahead or a year from now. I like to keep things safe, to know exactly where I’m going and how I’m going to get there. I don’t like not having control over what’s going on around me so I craft routines and a life for myself that minimises risk. Recently though I’ve realised that trying to control your life is like trying to handcuff the ocean, you’ll spend so long trying and trying but life can’t be shackled. One day the universe may just throw you a curve ball but because you’ve put all your efforts into trying to keep life safe and comfortable you’re not at all equipped to deal with it or learn from it and that’s when your life becomes stagnant. The universe might even throw an opportunity your way but if you miss it because you’re too busy trying to arrest the Pacific then just imagine what you’ve missed. What mistakes will you not make? Who are the people that you won’t meet? What lessons will you not learn? As scary as change is, imagine what you might experience if you just let the universe do its thing with you. Someone much smarter than me said to me that we start out as a block of stone and everything we do in life chips away at our edifice until eventually we get an opportunity to stand back and look at what statue we’ve created. I don’t want to reach the end knowing I didn’t embrace change because I knew it would make me feel uncomfortable for a while. I’m going to get off this train, have a really good go at my new life and hopefully add some good strikes to my statue.

-Nick

Getting into meditation 101

It seems like there’s a meditation for just about everything: you can meditate to clear your mind and simplify your thoughts, or you can meditate to help yourself drift off to sleep at night if you find yourself restless. If you’re stressed or angry, you can meditate to soften your emotions to prevent an unwanted lash-out. If you want to you can even meditate during sex so you can feel more. Meditations can suit different needs and can be built into your routine in pretty much any way you want, you can meditate daily or weekly or just to stop yourself from putting out an angry Tweet about your ex. From conversations I’ve had though it seems a fair few people think meditation is something they can’t really get into, either because they don’t know how to do it or they lose focus halfway through etc etc; it’s almost as if there’s a meditation club that you can’t be a part of unless you possess the ability to induce yourself into a coma. Yeah sure for the majority of us the chances of being inducted into a Buddhist monastery to spend our days contemplating is pretty remote. Thing is though we don’t need to be pros to enjoy the benefits of meditation. I want to use this scribble to share a few things I’ve learned about meditation and how I use it in my day to day life.

I’ve tried a load of meditations, some guided and some just by myself. I can’t sit cross-legged in the “proper” way and my back is more akin to that of a hunched gamer than a well-postured meditator. I first tried meditating out of pure curiosity for it and I remember sitting in my room with my legs crossed and my back straight thinking ‘is meditation meant to make me feel uncomfortable?’ I’ve heard that if you do meditate in this way, your body eventually gets used to being in that position so I’m not knocking that kind of practice, it just didn’t work for me and it really put me off, that was until I found guided meditations. I downloaded the 10% happier app not long ago and accidentally dropped £89 on a years’ subscription so here I am now with a resource I may as well use. I perused the app and I tried a few sleep-oriented meditations, usually from the same person. I must admit I didn’t take too well to them at first because I usually prefer to sleep with the sound of a fan nearby, not the hushed voice of someone trying to get me to sleep. After a period of doing the same few guided meditations in rotation I started to notice that I was dropping off to sleep quicker than I usually do; more importantly, as I got more and more used to the meditations I noticed my mind was quietening down a lot more. I’ve always had a loud mind especially at night, I’m the type who makes up scenarios and plays back old memories over and over again. I also tend to get more anxious at night, so my mind gets louder and more negative when I turn the lights off. However as I followed these meditations I started to enjoy moments of quiet and those moments are really all we need to drift off. As you can probably tell I’m more of a sleep meditator, but to return to my earlier point you can see now that I found a clear purpose for meditating. When I was sat cross-legged in my room I didn’t really have any idea what I was doing or why, I was just breathing deeply and hoping for enlightenment to come. Now, I know exactly what I’m doing and why and that’s probably the biggest thing to bear in mind as you start to get into meditation: look at what’s out there and think ‘what am I hoping to achieve here?’ If you don’t you won’t have the motivation to focus and you’ll quickly stop trying.

I haven’t exactly branched out yet beyond meditating to help myself get to sleep but something I want to make a point of is how good apps are for helping us get into meditation. As I pointed out earlier, I fumbled my way into a paid subscription to 10% Happier and although it’s costly I would highly recommend paying a subscription fee to either that app or others like it, I’ll drop a list in at the end of this post. The good thing about these apps is that there’s a lot of guided meditations and even talks which tend to be categorised so if something interests you can just look around and try different things to see what you might chime with; I’m going to try morning meditations next because snooze is like opium to my sleepy head, and I found out that they exist just by looking around an app. That being said you can absolutely just go onto YouTube and look up different meditations rather than spending your money, I bet if you can think of a theme there’s probably a meditation for it somewhere on the internet.

Lastly you don’t need to be a pro to get something out of it, there’s many nights where I’ll finish my meditation and I won’t be asleep or even relaxed and that’s fine. Meditation isn’t something you need to get right all the time in order to get something out of it, at the end of the day it’s a way to train your mind and your mind isn’t always co-operative. If you put pressure on yourself to get results you’re not going to be focused on the meditation; one thing I would definitely say is just try to enjoy the moment rather than worrying about whether it’ll work or not. As we get tangled up in day to day busyness our minds can become noisy and congested but the good thing about meditation is that you can learn a few simple mindfulness techniques pretty quickly and even they can help quieten your mind and slow things right down. I think it’s so important to quieten your mind sometimes because in those moments that’s when you get better at sorting the important from the unimportant, like taking a few minutes to appreciate the greenery you never see because you’re too busy looking at social media or taking a second to text your mum back instead of thinking about the things you need to get done. I hope this post makes sense, I didn’t really plan this in any way because I just felt like posting something. I hope it helps anyone looking to get into meditation.

-Nick.

Here’s some of the apps and resources I’ve come across:
-10% Happier (I use this app)
-Calm
-Headspace
-YouTube
-Spotify

Illness and identity

When I first started having panic attacks, other than being confused by the unwelcome Acid Jazz party going on in my chest I always felt weakened. By weakened I don’t mean that I felt lethargic but that I thought I had let myself down by succumbing to the sensations I’d been feeling. As panic and anxiety started to appear at random, I thought more about how I was letting myself down and this developed into a feeling of ineptitude. After all, panic and anxiety started to hold me back from various things I wanted to do. I cancelled on friends, neglected to self-care, missed the gym/training, couldn’t complete work etc. It just about permeated every part of my life, robbing me of any say over the matter in the process. Because panic especially can come at random, I’ve always had a feeling of trepidation before I do things because I might well have a bad night beforehand and that’ll throw everything in the air. It’s been hard to accept that these things will happen, it’s been even harder to convince myself that panicking isn’t a black streak that runs over my personality. 

At University I tried pretty hard to live by a routine, especially in my final year. At some points I actually did and I found a strange sort of pride in sacrificing drinking to make sure I did my laundry on a Sunday. Wow. I sometimes had a fairly consistent gym routine, and occasionally I ventured to do my degree. However there were plenty of times where these all just didn’t happen, and I felt ashamed of myself every time. This happened a lot but I remember having a panic attack the night before I was supposed to go to the gym with my friend. I woke up the next morning feeling drained, stupid and still a little bit anxious. Whenever these things happened I would religiously compare myself to men who were whatever I wasn’t at the time: consistent, strong, in-control, and although I didn’t realise it at the time I thought these guys were good men and I wasn’t. Social media had a lot to do with this because there’s a stylised version of masculinity that goes around which has a lot to do with strength, control, aesthetics and such-like; I would say I got sucked into it. 

When asked what I want to do with my life, I’ll tell you I want two things: to do something that makes me happy and to be a good man. I’m quite aware of my identity but of course those things can and do change over time. Unfortunately I let myself get sucked into this idea of masculinity that prides a stoic level of control over yourself and your emotions and of being consistent in everything all the time. Just think of the Rock running around in a stringer shouting “HARDEST WORKER IN THE ROOM” and you’ve pretty much arrived at something that looks like the kind of shoes I wanted to fill for a while. Of course men like Dwayne Johnson are highly unique and equally they lead an extremely tight lifestyle. Nonetheless, there’s a definite attractiveness to that kind of lifestyle. I wish I could explain why I was and still am drawn to that lifestyle when I like food, beer and sleep too much to ever attain that level of physical monstrosity. That’s the thing though, there’s been a huge dissonance between the kind of man I wanted to be for a while and the kind of man that I should be considering my actual fucking personality. I don’t wear stringers. 

I do still question myself when I panic or get anxious. Sometimes I still feel ashamed when I have to practice rhythmic breathing to calm myself down, yet four hours later the same broken record is spinning on and on in my head. I still sometimes feel like I’m a bit of a failure when I can’t make it to the gym after a tough night and on those days I’ll look at myself in the mirror and think “my god you do not look good.” I definitely still get worked up after my 10th micro-examination of a text message trying to decipher whether someones had enough of me. However I try now to think along different lines when I put myself under the microscope. I wonder what good I did in the day, for myself or for someone else; I also think about what I have achieved instead of what I haven’t. The big one is that I spend a great deal more time now being aware of what my panic is making me think of myself. Yes it affects my daily life and it probably will for the rest of my life but I try now to not see it as something that takes away from me. Having this disorder made me much more aware of illness and wellbeing, and my experiences with it have helped me to develop my personality in ways that has helped to befriend and grow alongside some truly beautiful people. In turn actually these wonderful people, whether they’re still in my life or not, have helped me to appreciate the good that I do bring to the world in my own unique way. I think I’m still a way off yet but I’m finally starting to recognise that my illness does not make me less of a man.

Why do I write?

Over the last four or five years writing has come to occupy a pretty big space in my life. I write for different reasons: catharsis, reflection, to be creative, they’re probably the main ones. It’s not that I’m good at writing, I have my moments of flair for sure but I like it so much because I can express myself with as much or as little creative jazz as I like really. I want to dedicate this post to the why bit of this weird little corner of the internet that I occupy and why I like writing privately as well. My private writing hasn’t really come up yet so I’d like to talk about that a little bit as well.

I started writing as a hobby when I was 18. It definitely wasn’t for shits and giggles or to write erotic fan-fics, it was so I could document my mental illness. (no blog of mine is complete without reference to my constant companion, is it?) For real though I started writing so I could make what amounted to a diary of my experiences for therapeutic purposes. I started to write down details about my panic attacks, what I thought caused them, where they happened etc. Making regular diary posts about lying down and staring into the void for 20 minutes doesn’t sound like the sexiest introduction to writing does it? But that’s my origin story, take it or leave it. Anyway after some time of cataloguing my progress I started to find myself writing more and more about other things as well, for example I started to write entries about my general day along with the occasional empty musing about something I’d read or something that was happening in my life. At my job at the time I being the plucky youngster I was wanted to impress, so I had the idea of combining my interest in films with my new-found enjoyment of writing to make short snappy film reviews for the store. Unfortunately my time as a film critic was short-lived, I wrote three reviews and ultimately they got turned down because they were neither short nor snappy. But you can put your violins down because at this point I was writing for my own enjoyment and I was actually pretty good at it as well, I’d found a way to communicate my thoughts and feelings across in a meaningful way. I didn’t really realise it at the time but having that creative outlet laid a big cornerstone for my development going into my 20’s.

Writing has always been tied to me and my own well-being, be it directly in the form of therapeutic writing or indirectly through writing short stories or film reviews. I still have a journal that I add to infrequently; I used to bash myself for not adding to it daily but over time I realised that I don’t enjoy being a diarist because my life is comparable to a Sunday morning line dance with the occasional trip off the rails thrown in. I enjoy thrashing out ideas and in particular I enjoy taking some time to explore myself through this medium. My journal therefore has become an inconsistent, disorganised psychological profile with a smattering of entries about getting my shit together. This kind of free-form rambling is really important though because what it amounts to is your mind having an open honest conversation with itself without all the repetition and lack of meaning that comes when you just keep your thoughts locked away. When you keep your thoughts locked away it’s like you’re keeping the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in the box. You can’t make any bloody sense of the picture because you haven’t even found your corners to work from yet. Writing is what helps me to make sense of the things going on inside my mind. Writing also helps me to establish milestones in my journey. When you document something you give it a stamp of legitimacy that it couldn’t possibly have if it just remained tucked away at the back of your mind only to come out during an outpouring of emotion; that and you can look back on something you’ve written- a plan, perhaps? A reflection on where you’re at emotionally or mentally at a given point in time? When you write it’s as if you leave a print of yourself on the page, the words you throw down blend to create a picture of your soul. You really are a work of art, you know? Can you tell I’m bitter about the fact I can’t draw or paint? Writing has helped me keep track of myself and I guess a lot of my blog posts have contained this kind of self-reflective style of mine.

That leads me pretty nicely into the blog. The blog is my chance to utilise my introspective nature to do some good for those around me. I chose to blog because 1) I can use my proclivity for writing to try to do some good for those around me and 2) I’m an introvert, doing my bit from the comfort of my own room is fucking perfect. I’m just an over-sharer with access to the internet. I started the blog mostly with the intention of sharing parts of my story and to add my perspective on aspects of mental health. I didn’t really realise people would actually come to read what I have to write and the feedback that started to come my way and still finds its way to me is absolutely mind-blowing. To think me documenting my experiences with mental illness whilst sharing some ways in which I try to improve my overall wellbeing would actually impact other people is absolutely crazy to me, yet this weird little blog of mine has started to make an impact. A pretty huge milestone in this journey was being given the incredible opportunity to talk in front of a rather large number of fellow students about my experience with anxiety at University. The feedback from the talk was instantaneous, people approached me afterwards to share their own experiences and that really cemented for me the value of fostering conversation around mental health and mental illness. So I write these posts because I enjoy writing about mental health but mostly I write these posts because I hope that the people who take the time to read what I have to say can take something away from all of this.

So that, in a nutshell, is why I write. Sometimes I write with a clear purpose, sometimes I don’t. I’ve written this on the back of several recent journal entries because I’m experiencing some weird changes of late, some good and some not so good, and I thought “I could turn this into a blog post.” I really didn’t have a plan with this one, I’ve just sat down and free-written for a while. I suppose you could say this has been cathartic in its own way. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading!

-Nick

Fitness and mental illness

Whether you truly go get that bread, run once a month in an attempt to escape the shame of knowing your takeaway to cooked food ratio or fall somewhere in-between, we can all pretty much agree that exercise is generally viewed as one of the top-tier ways to improve your overall mental wellbeing. “You should exercise more” is up there with the most irritating things to say to someone with a mental illness. Ironically enough I ended up doing just that and garnered some great results but it was on my terms that I started so fuck you, Deborah. I like fitness and- surprise, surprise- I have a mental illness. I’ve always been aware of it but until now I’ve never actually thoroughly addressed how my mental illness has affected and continues to affect my fitness journey. I’d like to subject you all to a post about the weird relationship between fitness and mental illness, how an illness can alter the way a person lives a fit lifestyle, and some tips based on my own experiences of how to build an exercise routine and diet plan whilst suffering with a mental illness. I should say this post has illnesses like anxiety, panic and depression in-mind.

I’ll open up with a bit of backstory about my 3-year attempt to achieve a level of fitness where I can run for the bus and not have an asthma attack. I’ve tried to lead an active lifestyle for some time, having played Rugby in my teens to being a member of my Sixth Form gym to enjoying a career in Volleyball spanning a magnificent one game. I stopped any sort of heart-raising activity when I moved to University. All jokes aside I was still struggling quite a lot with panic at the time and moving to a different part of the country with total strangers didn’t exactly calm the storm. I got back into it in my 2nd year when a good friend suggested I join him for a boxing session at my University boxing club and it all began there. Since then you could say I’ve moved at a good pace; I’ve lost weight, I can run for a bus and not die, (although I do always have my inhaler, better safe than sorry) I’ve competed in a boxing match, completed Tough Mudder and I’ve managed to gain some sort of muscle mass. Hooray I’m a gym bro now. The only thing: this journey has definitely not been a steady and consistent climb up the fitness tree, not one bit. When I started exercising properly again I believed it would provide an escape from my illness; I thought of it as an important step in my recovery for sure but only because exercising proved my panic wrong. Reality hit me pretty quickly when I experienced my first panic attack during exercise, it was terrifying! I’d thrown up a safety barrier and then my inconsiderate mental illness smashed it down. The truth is I’ve experienced anxiety and panic during a lot of workouts and most recently I had to take a breather at a boxing session because I was that exhausted I panicked at the thought of passing out. I experience some kind of anxiety every time I go to the gym; I think most of us do, really. There are certainly times when my anxiety directly impedes a workout: I’ve been too anxious to approach someone to ask how many sets they have left, whether I could jump in etc and instead adapted my workout to move around the issue. This has made me think two things: that the way I lead a fit lifestyle is certainly different to what we might think of “the norm” (if there is a norm?) and, unfortunately, that I don’t belong in a gym. These thoughts come and go, they aren’t a constant. However they’ve got me thinking about mental illness and fitness and that’s why I’m here. Anyway, enough about me.

A gym or any kind of space in which exercise takes place can understandably feel like an uncomfortable, triggering or even outright hostile environment for someone with a mental illness or even someone who experiences say social anxiety or low self-esteem. We mentally-ill folk certainly don’t hold the monopoly on unfortunate life experiences. However to stay with the spirit of the post, the prospect of being in a triggering space can cause a strong aversion to ever being inside it. So it’s easy to feel like you simply don’t belong in a gym or a pool or a studio or even a pavement and that exercise isn’t yours to enjoy. It’s as if your illness is disallowing you from fitness. Now I understand this isn’t the case for everyone with a mental illness, but I’m sure there are plenty have come to accept that exercise and them just aren’t compatible.

Another complicating issue is that people experience different degrees of severity with their illnesses over time. Here I’m speaking to those who suffer from inconsistency right the way to total derailment. We might start making the first steps or even gain some pretty good traction but then a bad episode might begin or a bad night could throw your plan off-track. The point here is that an illness can create complications that might not exist for someone who doesn’t have an illness. We usually tend to imagine a good fit lifestyle consistent of 4-6 days of consistent exercise per-week, an average of 8-hours’ sleep per night, (imagine) and a consistently healthy diet that might relax a little at the weekend. To go back to myself briefly, I can’t remember the last time I hit 5 consistent days of exercise. I plan my weeks out, sure, but I’m just one bad night away from sleeping through my alarm so I have enough sleep just to survive my day at work. Mental illnesses make these kinds of roadblocks more present and these can be seriously disheartening. This peak and trough experience of mine has frequently made me compare myself to people who do achieve remarkable consistency and this has led me to think that I’m just not cut out for a fit lifestyle.

Well, I’d like to share a few tips and even a bit of positivity after all that doom and gloom. Firstly and most importantly, to someone considering a more active lifestyle please remember: you are in this for the long run! Plan with this knowledge in-mind. Thinking long-term gives you room to find a suitable environment or acclimatise to one that previously felt uncomfortable and importantly it gives you room to make mistakes. Making disgusting meals, working out at the wrong time etc will happen and unless you understand that your journey into fitness is a lifelong one these kinds of mishaps could easily cause derailment. I should stress as well the importance of taking time to find an environment that you feel comfortable in. I advise doing prior research and to speak to anyone you may know to ask them what that particular place is like. Getting to a gym need not be a huge plunge into the unknown.

As for setting goals, one thing I know a fair few people rely on is the concept of SMART goals. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time) I myself stand by this method of setting goals however one thing I would say is to be careful with the Time element. This is where we have to be a little honest with ourselves and think “given my condition, should I allow a little more time to accommodate any negative fluctuations in my mental health?” Setting a time-frame for a specific goal isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in-fact it can add some important focus. It’s just important to be open and honest with yourself about what roadblocks you might encounter along the way and to ensure that they don’t derail you when or if they come about.

Building on from this, don’t be too harsh on yourself for missing a day, or two, or more. Take time, reflect on what caused you to miss these sessions. A huge part of self-care is looking at your actions and seeing them as they are, this includes being brutally honest but does not mean unnecessarily chastising yourself. At the end of the day we’re in this for the long run.

It may sound odd but remember to think about why you’re about to do this workout. Is the motivation coming from a healthy place? There have been times where I’ve gone to the gym with a piece from social media stuck in the back of my mind. What’s driven me on many an occasion is bubbling self-hatred that when left unchecked has caused me to spiral. Your reason for exercising should always come from a good place. 

There’s some bits of advice that I’ve been able to conjure-up based on my own experiences of trying to be fit whilst battling a mental illness. I’ll just finish on this: it isn’t impossible to reconcile mental illness and fitness. You absolutely are not disallowed from enjoying an active lifestyle. There’s nothing wrong with having to miss a session due to poor mental health, and you absolutely can live a fit lifestyle that works within your means. Having a mental illness may place restrictions on how you live your life, but with a lot of flexible planning and some close care and reflection you can come to build your own fitness journey.

Old symptoms coming back? Don’t panic.

“Why am I feeling things that I haven’t felt in months and in some cases over a year?”

I finished therapy in July 2015, moved to University in September of that year, endured some struggles with my panic and anxiety but come the end of my time as a student in July 2018 I felt like I had my illness pretty under-control bar the occasional blip. Recently, however, I’ve been finding myself asking that question more and more. I’ve had more sleepless nights in the last month than I have this previous year and I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me feel uncomfortable (and tired, very tired). Every time I feel my old symptoms rushing back- the intense adrenaline rushes across my chest, heart palpitations, shaking- I feel this sense of dread that at times has become overwhelming. It’s as if you’re being dragged back into darker days and most worryingly, there isn’t a great deal you can do about it. That’s what my mind tells me when I’m probably at my most vulnerable and when I’m most susceptible to believing these pernicious thoughts. There’s nothing really new to these developments so to speak and that makes me wonder why they’ve been so pervasive. This elusive element gives every moment of panic some extra intensity because you really feel like there’s nothing you can do; therapy helped you overcome them once but now it’s as if old tactics don’t hold the same sway they once did. A key part of my therapy was to establish two theories: Theory A and Theory B. Theory A suggested that there was in-fact something wrong with my heart and these symptoms represent a wider health condition. Theory B on the other hand countered by suggesting that these symptoms are in-fact not dangerous at all. They’re not symptoms of a health condition but rather symptoms of a panic attack or feelings of panic. I’ve used this framework consistently and over time I’ve noticed that those intense moments of panic have calmed down.

These old tactics haven’t lost their power, rather I’ve become complacent in making them powerful for my life as it currently is. This last month has taught me that alongside the slumps you experience in recovery there’s also the chance that you yourself will adjust to easier times and get complacent. I can recall the worst parts of my illness; at those points I was convinced I was dead, my life was meaningless and in a moment spent staring at the ceiling I was gone having done nothing good for the world. Now that I believe I’m in with a chance of seeing grey hairs on my head I’ve neglected some of the practices that helped me to achieve a calmer state of mind. Not only this, I neglected practices that sat nicely alongside the things I’d learned in therapy to help me to “ride the wave” of panic, so to speak.

I have a love/hate relationship with my own process of recovery and I think that a lot of that comes down to the way I understand my own recovery. I started to imagine it as a set of routinised practices that I had to follow strictly if I were to beat my illness. Sure, healthy routines are a key part of recovery but what if you force your entire life into becoming habitual? The thing with tying yourself to routines all the time is that when you inevitably get frustrated with them and stop doing them you’re left in a void where no activity feels valuable because you assigned all that value away. Suddenly the things you once felt were crucial to you feel meaningless, and that is a weird thing to feel. So what do you do? Well, you’re not panicking any more and you’re not deriving so much enjoyment from some habits anymore so why not just leave them. You don’t cut them out per-se because you’ve not made that conscious choice but they do lose their important place in your mind.

Recovery is painful but I never expected it to be a pain the arse, too. I thought that if I did things one way that I would be okay. The ingredient that I forgot was honest self-reflection. Let’s be honest, when we’re doing pretty well it’s easy to ignore what it is we might be doing wrong, isn’t it? The truth is that during the good times you might be dancing all over the foundations you’ve built. When you do eventually fall down, what do you have to build yourself back up? Recovery isn’t a simple process, there isn’t one set plan and there definitely isn’t a clear victory point. By choosing to not reflect on how I’ve been doing, I didn’t realise that things I’d once relied-on weren’t working as they should with my life being in the place that it is right now. Not just that, I didn’t want to confront the strange decline in my once-prevalent habits because I was scared of what that might reveal about me. What I’ve learned is that recovery demands you to be attentive to the current of your own thoughts and overall mental health. It demands close care of yourself, so as to not lose track of yourself when times are good. This isn’t to say that when we’re recovering from a mental illness we can’t enjoy the times when our illnesses are less present, rather that we must remember to pay close attention to ourselves and learn from what is working and what isn’t working. This has been my first major experience with really falling off-track and whilst it’s been a painful and confusing process, it has no doubt presented me with opportunities to learn more about myself and to grow from them.


Creed 2: A review

 

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The Klitschko brothers have nothing on this death-stare

There’s a formula for gripping people in a fight film; it isn’t quite the cathartic release that comes as the villain gets his 7th shade of shit knocked out of him, although that common crescendo never loses its sweet twang of satisfaction. No, the formula i’m talking about is what makes those crescendos all the more powerful. At its core, the formula I’m talking about is essentially a question: why do we fight? This question often guides the journeys taken by our protagonists, and is an effective way of making the vast majority of us relate to the struggles faced by our characters. It is so simple, yet its simplicity is what makes it so effective because it resonates with anyone fighting a battle of their own. We share in the story of our protagonists and relate our own journeys and motivations to theirs; what makes these stories all the more powerful, especially in the case of the Rocky and Creed franchises is that in the end our protagonists always overcome adversity. Given that films are one of our favourite forms of escapism it makes a lot of sense for us to get hyped up to face our own battles as we watch a fictional character overcome theirs. Creed II handles that fundamental question of why we fight brilliantly and the result is a film that is raw, emotionally-resonant and provides one of the best closures to a franchise that I’ve ever seen.

Creed II, just like Creed, revolves around family and it does this in a refreshing way. At a supposed high point in his career, Adonis hasn’t found his apex. Despite winning a world title there’s still something that just isn’t quite there. He has an amazing partner in Bianca, a father-figure in Rocky, and a high level of sporting success. What he doesn’t have is a remedy for the death of his father, Apollo. This was the main motivator for what happened in Creed and rightly-so it continues into Creed II. At this point nothing really seems refreshing, does it? We’ve had countless stories revolve around loss of family. This is where Ivan and Viktor Drago come in, and they are the key ingredient in making this otherwise familiar tale somehow feel new. Ivan Drago in this film is a real person! He’s a lot more than the grumbling man-mountain we saw in Rocky IV. The Ivan Drago we have in this film was broken by the events of Rocky IV. Following his defeat to Rocky, he was effectively ostracised from his family, his entire country and went from hero to zero overnight. In order to piece back together his tarnished legacy he decides to forge his son into a relentless killing machine (we won’t go into the clear weight-class difference between the two fighters, it’s a Creed film). This move completely makes-sense, even looking at the continuity from Rocky IV. Drago and Rocky symbolised the USSR and the USA respectively and his loss could easily be seen as a victory of America over Russia, Capitalism over Communism, McDonalds over Gulags. Drago fell from the highest of heights to the lowest depths, and out of those depths came the monstrosity that is his son. Viktor Drago was forged through pain and was coerced into believing this his manifest destiny is to avenge his fathers historic loss and restore honor to his family. The return of Ivan Drago along with his son is purposeful and this adds to its emotional resonance just as much as Dolph Lundgrens superb acting. This along with the way these two clans coalesce around regret, revenge and legacy is what makes this film feel so now. I dare say that what elevates this film beyond being just simply good is the way in which the Drago’s catalyse a journey which shows us how powerful a motivation family can be.

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If there ever was a case for the importance of on-screen chemistry, it’s these two.

Creed built into Creed II and culminated in a film that feels raw. The films answers to the question “why do we fight?” comes from emotions and relationships that have been around since Rocky IV. Creed II especially takes an otherwise forgettable character in Ivan Drago and gives his story such gravity that his abusive relationship with his son gives this film the feiry intensity it clearly aimed-for. As a fan of the Rocky and Creed franchises the thing I enjoyed most about this film was the closure it provides our characters and us the audience with. The coalescence around family, legacy, regret and revenge doesn’t end in a cataclysmic explosion but with a clear eye to better horizons for all of our characters. Out of Viktor’s tantilising defeat at the films crescendo comes the realisation from Ivan Drago that he loves his son. His love for his son is more powerful than his need to re-establish his name and by throwing in the towel we literally see him cutting himself away from his demons and giving his son what he really needs: a loving father who cares for the welfare of his son. The end of the film sees the father-son duo out running once again, this time side-by-side. Viktor looks over to his father and looks back ahead, silently embracing that which he has always craved yet cannot acknowledge. Adonis also is freed from his personal demons by avenging the death of his father. I personally felt more attached to the relationship between Ivan and Viktor Drago, but it was wonderful to see Adonis finally get his closure and to enjoy his relationship with Bianca. What really came as a pleasant surprise was seeing Rocky return to his son. I must admit, this end to Rocky really made me wonder what made them give him cancer in the first-place but I digress. Earlier in the film Rocky reminisces about his son, knowingly absent in Creed and without any sort of explanation. Creed II addresses the absence of Rocky’s son somewhat- he’s an adult living his own life and Rocky, the old-fashioned Philadelphian, doesn’t want to intrude on his son’s modern life. Although their coming together was perhaps a bit rushed, I’m not willing to say that this exit for Rocky is inadequate or disrespectful. Rocky is no longer the main character in this show and to devote more screen-time to his character arc would detract from the highly-focused plot of the film. We know from earlier films that almost every significant person in Rocky’s life has passed-away. For me it was enough to finally see the old titan find some peace and tranquility in the simplicity of stepping into his son’s home. I think that’s the kind of low key bow-out Rocky himself would have asked for.

Creed II was explosive yet emotional, powerful yet vulnerable. The Creed saga has given us characters with great depth and has somehow been able to utilise the all-too-familiar Rocky formula to give us a new and captivating spin on the motivations for enduring great struggles. The triumph of our characters over their struggles is one of my favourite closures to a film series. On a personal level I felt the same satisfaction and completeness as when I first watched Return of the Jedi and got to watch through teary eyes as Anakin, Yoda and Obi-Wan all watched over our beloved Luke. It was wonderful to see our characters get their closure and I only now hope that the story truly ends there.

What we can learn from introverts

Something I hear a lot is “you’re very happy/outgoing/energetic”… you catch my drift. A lot of people have probably thought of me as quite extroverted as a result of how I can present myself in social situations, but the truth is I’m actually an introvert. I despise small talk, I usually last around an hour at social gatherings before the social battery runs dry etc. I crave solitude. To quote the wonderful Susan Cain, to whom I owe a great debt for helping me to come to terms with certain facts about myself, “solitude can be like the air we breathe”.

Now, the way I am in conversations isn’t an act most of the time. Sometimes nerves do compel me to seem more excitable than I actually am, but for the most part I do derive a lot of enjoyment from a good conversation and my gregariousness is genuine. However I also need my alone time, and I need a lot of it to recharge my batteries. As a matter of fact, I’m at my best in most respects when I’m alone. I like to work alone in amongst the low hum of conversations going on around me. I like to go to the gym alone where I can get lost in my music and find my “zone”. I like to just be alone because it gives me space to get lost in my head, and that’s something I love doing. I can’t speak for all introverts, but for me I am usually at my best in environments that aren’t exuming stimuli from all directions.

Enough about me, let’s get more to the point. Susan Cain believes we live in a very extroverted society and I’m inclined to agree. I don’t really think there’s much room for debate here. In our education system we’re becoming increasingly focused on group activites with the idea being that better ideas come about through collaborative thinking. I’ve had many conversations with fellow students who don’t necessarily dislike their peers but rather just believe that they work best alone and I think we need to pay attention to these concerns. I’m reading that workplaces are placing more focus on candidates being lively and outgoing for roles that don’t require you to be a bubbly persona 24/7. An emergent belief now is that the best ideas come from collaborative projects, or what Susan Cain calls the “big groupthink”. What I’m trying to say here is that the idea of leading an extroverted life is being increasingly pushed onto people from an early age when actually there’s a lot we can learn from introverts and the kind of lives they tend to lead.

Introverts are more likely to be reflective, to stand on the periphery of social interactions and weigh-up what’s going on before joining-in. Introverts are more likely to think before they speak, and as leaders they tend to focus more on delegation rather than leading the way themselves. Most importantly, introverts are very good at quietening things down and lowering the stress of their immediate environments. I realise I’m generalising here and of course not all introverts will be like this and not all extroverts will be brash in the way I’ve described above, but there’s enough research to suggest we can speak in some general terms about how introverts and extroverts are. What I take from introverts is that there’s a lot of value in solitude and in quietning yourself down and allowing yourself to ease away from the constant stimuli that society throws our way these days. Taking some time to read that book you’ve been meaning to read, to have a long bath, to even remove yourself from an immediate social situation so you can just take a minute to breathe can really be helpful. My alone time not only helps me work at my best but helps me to re-focus, remind myself of my goals, think about how I’ve behaved lately and if anything I’ve been doing is off, and allows me to simply be in the moment sometimes. On the other side of things, being solitary shouldn’t be discouraged. In the average classroom there will be a fairly even mix of introverts and extroverts and it isn’t conducive to a healthy education to force introverted kids into groupwork where they’re likely to be pushed-out by the louder, more extroverted kids in the group. In our workplaces, we shouldn’t focus so heavily on group-based sessions when there’s workers present who are far more adept at producing excellent ideas when they’re tucked away in the intellectually-fertile confines of their own work-spaces. Introverts can teach us that nuance is a great thing. Schools can be better geared-up to maximise engagement from both introverts and extroverts, and workplaces can be structured in such a way where each worker is allocated their ideal working environment. Of course much of this is highly-demanding and I’m well-aware of this. The key thing to think about here is that people work and operate best at different levels of stimuation, and we’d be wise to unlock the potential of our introverts. Just look at the creator of the Macintosh, the intellectual Father of Natural Selection, and the Mother of the African-American civil rights movement.

 

-Nick