Breaking big rocks into smaller rocks: the hard core approach to mental health recovery was the title of an article I wrote in 2013. It was published in a journal by the Royal College of Psychiatrists:
I was surprised, though, that there was no follow up from that. Nobody from the world of psychiatry or related fields sought to make further enquiry about the approach I was taking to rehabilitate myself back into a relatively healthy state of mind.
I think maybe it was because what I was doing seemed quite bizarre: undertaking hard physical labour involving a large sledge hammer and a lot of rocks. And yet the improvements I found in my mental well-being were significant, and lasted for several weeks after I returned to my day job, based in an office.
While I don’t believe that all aspects of my complex mental health needs would have been resolved by continuing to do rigorous physical endeavour all day, every day, the experience certainly had a part to play in my overall recovery.
And the principle of breaking things down into smaller chunks is one that I work with every day.
My relationship with food has historically been a difficult one.
As a teenager I went on a strict diet – mostly made up of cottage cheese, crispbread, lean meat and fruit – to keep me at 7/71/2 stone. That was the only way I could feel reasonably good about myself and my body.
Even so, I didn’t think anybody could possibly find me attractive, and I struggled with a very limited life.
If I ever did ‘let go’ and start to eat anything even remotely fattening, my mood plummeted as my weight gained. The only way I could cope was to start restricting my eating again. I had no concept that help or support of any kind might be available; it was a very private and lonely struggle that went on until my mid-40s. After an almost catastrophic catalogue of failed relationships and career stalemate I realised that I had to push through the internal barriers, and keep going until I came out the other side.
20 years on, at 66, I believe I have finally arrived at that point.
I weigh five stone more than I did in my teens, and though I am aiming to steadily lose some weight this won’t be my starving myself – not just of food, but of life.
There are many factors and influences that have helped me to get through, not least in recent years that of my partner, Trev, who makes me feel beautiful just as I am, inside and out. That’s a great gift to get at any age!
I’ve taken on board Buddhist teachings of all kinds, with one fundamental phrase being an enduring fallback: “The mind is a muscle and it can be changed.”
I’ve had to fight and work hard to train and change my brain and was fortunate to find the fight associated with a strong survival instinct when I needed it.
That isn’t to say that I haven’t had moments of self-loathing that threatened to be overwhelming. But I kept looking for and finding ways to be positive, including reaching out to others who were also struggling in the extreme.
I still won’t try clothes on in a shop changing room, and feel no need to put myself through that ordeal. So while this may be evidence of ‘avoidance’ lingering in my psyche, it’s a minor issue as far as I’m concerned, and doesn’t get in the way of me living my life in a full way, including enjoying delicious food.
When I went through a major breakdown in my late thirties, one of the many things I struggled to come to terms with, as I fought my way back to functionality, was the sense of all the ‘wasted time’ that had gone into building a life that at that stage had come to ‘nothing’.
Roll on more than a quarter of a century, and I’ve had a significant shift in mindset. As each day unfolds I feel a strong sense of being gifted with it; of having all the time in the world. ‘Making the most of it’ can mean anything I want it to mean, whether that be resting, walking, making something out of clay, washing up, doing housework, doing nothing.
So, how did I get from where I was to where I am now?
I’m not really sure, because it’s all a bit of a blur, but I know I’ve done a lot of meditating, a lot of searching, a lot of turning myself inside out, of fighting the thoughts that threatened to pull me into despair, a lot of reaching out, falling, getting up again and trying something else.
Sometimes the last push is the hardest and coming to terms with things that I couldn’t change took some doing. At around the same time that I had a counsellor who was determined to avoid the key issues that I needed to address, I came across a Buddhist teaching that helped me enormously: https://madhyamaka.org/how-to-accept-what-cant-be-changed/.
The lingering sadness associated with not having been able to form a family of my own has taken a different turn recently, in the form of a furry friend. She’s not a baby, she’s an adult dog. However, she’s done something to my heart that’s filled a gap I never thought could be filled. Time isn’t about what’s past or ‘lost’, it’s about being here and now, with my partner, and our dog.
I was at the funeral of a friend yesterday. He’d died unexpectedly at the age of 67.
As it turned out, the day of the funeral was the day of my 66th birthday.
A funeral isn’t the usual expected place to be on a birthday, nor is it where you would expect to receive an unexpected birthday present. But that is exactly what happened to me yesterday, at my friend Bill’s funeral. It was a gift given to me by Bill’s grieving wife, Deb, in words that she spoke in celebration of her husband’s life.
Deb spoke about the ancient Japanese art and philosophy of Kintsugi. Kintsugi is about celebrating imperfection; not trying to hide what is broken but recognising the place of mending as a thing of beauty in its own right, and highlighting the mend with gold. She referred to her husband as ‘pure gold’. He was. As was her gift to me in what she said, using words and with passion that I cannot even begin to emulate, nor do I think that I should even try. They were words that could only be spoken by a wife, grieving the loss of the love of her life.
I do, however, want to acknowledge those words in this post, feeling broken as I continue to feel inside as I continue to hope and try to heal. I realise now that I don’t have to aim to heal back to how I was before I was broken; that the broken parts and the process of healing – that includes reaching out to others who are also struggling – are the pure gold of life. So I’ll continue to live it in the best way that I can, cracks and all.
As it turns out, I’ve been making some pots recently that are basically balls of solid clay that may well fall apart in the kiln. I now hope that they do – so that I can mend them in the Kintsugi way. Amazingly enough, I also got another birthday present yesterday – from another friend. It was a Kintsugi kit! How weird and wonderful is that?
At the turn of the Millennium, I completed a project under the Mind-Millennium Award Scheme.
My project – the Lifelines Project – involved collecting and publishing poems, pictures and self-help strategies from other people who, like me, had suffered from enduring and debilitating depression.
I had not met many of the contributors, and was amazed – honoured – that they trusted me with their personal expressions, all because of the underlying intention of reaching out in the hope of helping others.
If you, yourself, are suffering with depression, I would like to wish you well and tell you that you are not alone.”
Since then, there’s been increased awareness about mental health and how it can be improved. While there remains much to be done in society from the ‘prevent’ and ‘promote’ perspectives, being able to – and even encouraged – to talk about mental health difficulties more openly represents a start.
In my own experience, I eventually got fed up of talking – I’ve never been much good at it anyway. I knew that I needed to take action, to find ways of turning my life around, however difficult or painful that might be. And I knew it would be difficult and painful, to rebuild from a below zero level when I was in my forties.
From somewhere, somehow, I found the resolve to put my head down, prioritise, and push myself through. For a long time I concentrated on work and on developing my internal resilience. Just before I turned 60 I decided to take the plunge and commit to a relationship. I now have a much fuller and richer life than I have ever had before and I’m thankful for that.
Even so, life continues to be difficult and I still take antidepressants – probably always will. But I have other coping skills and strategies, and have also been able to recently retire, taking away work pressures that I could no longer deal with.
I wasn’t able to keep in touch with all the people who contributed to the Lifelines Project but they’ve always remained in my thoughts and I hope that they too have been able to find a way through; a way that works for each of them:
I thought it was fitting to include a poem by one of the Project contributors – Mark:
The night has been terror: depression, cold, confusion. – Ears scream.
Grey – the morning in my front-room.
A tear on my cheek and a child’s grizzle for a few seconds – From my adult form.
One aspect of depression that is a constant struggle is finding something – anything – to build up my self-esteem. To a certain extent I’ve learnt to live with it, knowing that the worst moments pass if I rest up and tune in to parts of my brain that I’ve trained, using positive processes such as meditation, and affirmations: “I choose to be peaceful and calm; everything is unfolding as it should.”
I’ve identified my own truths and ‘root causes’ of past problems, and arrived at a point – in a very long and arduous journey – where I felt I didn’t need to have any aspects of these verified or vindicated by any one or any thing. However, I have found it helpful recently to have discovered the work of Imi Lo. I went through her book – Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity: how to manage intense emotions as a highly sensitive person (John Murray Learning, 2018) – highlighting many passages that I felt applied directly to me. I urge anyone who has been deemed ‘over-sensitive’ and felt alienated one way or another as a result, to read and take hope from this book.
The author states in a key point (p.45):
We are not here to dismiss the validity of all mental health diagnoses, or the importance of appropriate treatment in the case of severe psychological trauma. But it is important to examine the root of your suffering: often, it may be a reflection of your natural tendencies, and a result of being misunderstood, rather than as a sign of defectiveness. We must be extra cautious to not reinforce any restrictive categories, diagnoses and stigma around emotional intensity.
In the final chapter of her book, Imi Lo identifies possibilities for tapping in to our creative potential.
It’s possible to be creative in many ways – not just through the arts. I’ve been as creative as I could be at different stages in my life and through many different types of work. However, having arrived at the point when I’m now retired, giving me a new-found freedom that I relish, I’m loving being able to re-immerse myself in solving problems associated with art and design, construction and concepts.
A significant difference that I’ve noticed between how I feel about work that I produce now, compared with work that I produced when I was younger, is that now I can feel a sense of satisfaction about having produced it. I can ‘own it’, take pride in it, see it for what it is in the context of my life; a life that I’m glad to have.
My self-esteem still falls by the wayside sometimes, but – generally speaking – I’m in a much better place than I’ve ever been. It takes a bit of getting used to, but I’m determined to make the most of it, knowing that I am – after all ‘gifted’ rather than the waste of space I often felt myself to be.
1978 was the year I graduated with a degree in Ceramics from Bristol Polytechnic.
I’d reached out to art in my teens as a way of asserting a direction, without knowing where that direction might take me. It was driven by some deep-rooted instinct; an instinct which for a long time I thought had failed me. But it hadn’t.
As it’s turned out, my life has taken many “twists and turns, and loops and leaps”, most of which have left me struggling to find a foothold. Finally, however, I feel I am on firm ground, and astonished to find myself turning back to working with clay, after a break of over 40 years.
What’s even more astonishing is that I’m not only loving working with the medium, I’ve got ideas coming into my head from goodness knows where. I’m not having to push myself just to produce something, anything, as I did when I was at college (although I was proud of what I did produce in the end; it was no easy feat, considering the complexity of mental health problems I was dealing with).
Art didn’t work as a therapy for me when I was younger; the damage went too deep and I had to find ways to dig it out – just like clay has to be dug out. What I’ve got now is malleable and mouldable in whatever way I choose. I can be creative in any way or ways that suit me; working with clay or words; working with my life.
I hope my pots can be poetic; and that my poetry will continue to be potty.
After grinding to a halt last year (when I was 64), I’ve had 12 months of resting and recuperating. It’s been great to have no time pressures, be able to catch up on household jobs and generally just ‘chill’. However, I still don’t feel like giving up on my working life altogether and have just started a new job. It’s part-time and temporary – just for a few weeks – and has tested my ability to keep calm in the face of new technology (use of a smart phone is an intrinsic part of the job). With some effort I’ve been able to keep my anxiety levels within manageable parameters – breathing through the stress and repeating my ever-faithful affirmation of ‘I choose to be peaceful and calm; everything is unfolding as it should’. There have been times when I have felt anything other than peaceful and calm but I seem to be settling in. It’s tiring, but I’m doing it.
When I was going through the worst of my breakdown, one of things I hung on to, to haul myself through, was the knowledge of how hard I’d worked when I was younger – dealing with anxiety without any coping mechanisms for a long time – to develop work skills and experience. I was determined that all that hard work would not go to waste.
I do believe that if more people had more help with anxiety and associated difficulties when they were younger, it would help to avoid the devastation that having a breakdown can bring. As a society we still have a long way to go before we can consider ‘inclusion’ a reality rather than a pretend game.
In one sense, this post should just be entitled ‘Being’, because age is irrelevant.
I interact with the world essentially as a being, and don’t need a label.
On the other hand, I do have history, and the ways that I have worked through that history impact on the way that I interact with the world – and other beings in it – on a daily basis.
It isn’t always easy to put the past behind us, especially when heavily loaded with emotions associated with trauma and grief.
Accepting things that I cannot change has been a hard life lesson to learn for me, helped by meditation, affirmations, and Buddhist teachings (including one in particular by Gen Togden of the Kadampa tradition).
Not having had children is a major regret. Raising this as an issue with a therapist recently, still needing to work it through, I was met with a profoundly uncompassionate response: “So you decided not to have them then, did you?”
At one level, she was right. I made choices – decisions – that led to me being in a state of extreme mental and emotional turmoil in my late 30s and 40s. Decisions that I made as a struggling, vulnerable young woman in my 20s were mine, and I was an adult. But should I really have had to pay such a high price in later life?
Shit does happen though, and doesn’t discriminate. Thankfully, I have had previous experiences with other counsellors/therapists who’ve approached my distress with humanity and empathy.
Even so, some things take a long time to work through. Some ‘stuff’ from the past has just come up that I thought I’d put behind me, or at least wanted to. It doesn’t always work like that though, and I’m sure my brain dredged it up now because I hadn’t properly dealt with it previously.
Now I’m in a much better place than I have ever been before, living with a kind, loving, supportive, funny partner. Being 65 is a starting point for me, and it’s never too late.
If I can send out a message to anyone who’s going through personal difficulties – whether recently experienced or long-term endured – it is to say: “Don’t give up.”
We don’t always know what we’re made of until our backs are to the wall, especially if we’ve oriented towards ‘flight’ rather than ‘fight’ in early years.
Fighting for survival is a primary motivator and there is always light at the end of the tunnel. Even if you can’t see it for yourself, let someone else – a friend – see it and hold it for you until you can.
I’m only 65, and I’ve got all my life ahead of me. So have you.
It may not be the most obvious thing to write about at this time of year, or even at any time of year.
However, it represents, for me, something of a New Year’s resolution, albeit one that I started with before this New Year; in fact before the last few New Years.
I started using soap instead of shower gel as a way of using less plastic. It’s a small contribution to a massive environmental problem, and I’m sure soap itself has negative impacts on the environment.
But I believe in small steps, building up to marathons and mountain climbs.
I make other buying decisions to reduce the impact of my waste on the world, such as buying unpackaged fruit and veg when I can, although I’m still horrified at the amount of ‘stuff’ that goes into our recycling bins.