Four Life Lessons from my Expeditions to Mental Illness

July 15, 2018

A few months ago, as I started to gain momentum in writing this blog, I was giving a lot of thought toward public attitudes around mental illness. Probably in the caffeinated haze of a Saturday morning in Ascot, I wrote the following, as yet unpublished, and rather self-aggrandising words:

 

It would literally make my heart sing if someone said the following to me:

“You are so amazing for living with this – it’s like you’ve climbed Everest on four separate occasions. Tell me what I can learn from you.”

 

And it may be true that these words are a bit self-important. But, I would be willing to wager a lot that anyone who has climbed the highest mountain in the world and has lived through depression (and mark my words, there will be a lot of them) will tell you that the latter was the more challenging endeavour.

 

Either way, the reason I quote these words is really as an illustration of the fact that, over time, I’ve been able to recognise my ‘predicament’ as not just a weakness, but also as a strength. And a strength which I think deserves greater acknowledgement – not really for me but for all those out there who have survived and live with mental health difficulties. Perhaps many of them could benefit from acknowledging this for themselves, too.

 

 

 

So, embracing my delusions of grandeur and now imagining myself speaking from the position of Ernest Shackleton, Edmund Hilary, Amelia Earhart and Neil Armstrong, here are four life-lessons I can share with you from my own voyages of exploration, into the darkest and corners of my mind and soul. I do need to acknowledge that these ‘lessons’ are quite abstract and philosophical, so if you aren’t into that kind of stuff, accept my apologies and perhaps just read the titles. Otherwise, thanks for bearing with me.

 

Here goes:

 

Lesson 1: Life is full of paradoxes that don't need to be resolved 

 

We are taught from a young age that life is full of binary conditions. People are winners OR losers. Decisions are right OR wrong. You are either happy OR unhappy. It’s an easy shortcut and people like the media and politicians make use of it all the time to sell their ideas to you or market their products. Just think of the number of times you have dished out or been subject to a berating for ‘sitting on the fence’.

 

But the reality of the world is quite different.

 

In my job, working with business leaders, we talk a lot about paradox. For example, leaders need to focus on both short-term results AND long-term planning; the need to provide both challenge AND support for our employees. The need to empower people AND ensure appropriate governance & oversight of their work. We simply don’t have enough time on our hands to be able to do both, and, really, while we choose one, we often end up having to oppose or sacrifice the other.

 

The lesson we hope to help leaders to learn is that good leadership isn’t always about choosing between right OR wrong. It’s not about choosing long-term planning OR short-term results. Instead, it’s about balancing these mutually exclusive priorities, and making sure the balance doesn’t tip too far in any one direction. Leadership is an art form, in that regard.

 

And the same principle applies when we think about our mental health and our internal lives. A couple of the paradoxes I’ve learned to accept are as follows:

 

1. You have to be weak to be strong.

 

By this I simply mean two things. First is that we need the people around us to help us to be at our strongest. And when we are in a pickle, we need others to help us get out of that pickle. This means we need to be able to ask for help and allow others to help. We need to accept our ‘weakness’ and find the ‘strength’ to ask others for help.

 

Secondly, we also need to be able to acknowledge our weaknesses in order to resolve or compensate for them, so that we can be at our strongest. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable is one of the keys to finding our best selves.

 

2. Nothing matters and everything matters

 

I’m not a man of faith, and by my reckoning we ultimately all fade into nothingness sooner or later. We can take the view that, in relative terms, we’re so insignificant in the grand scheme of things, that we may as well not even bother. And when you’re in the midst of a depression, this thought weighs like a millstone around your neck.

 

The alternative, and much more attractive ‘story’ for me is that life as the only thing we’ll ever have. This short, insignificant experience we all have on this tiny, pale blue dot, is the one opportunity we’ll have to bring some excitement to our own story and to leave our mark on the enormous tapestry of the history of the universe. May as well make something of it, right?

 

The unfortunate thing for me, in regard to my past mental health, is that neither story is incorrect and there is no objective truth that I could identify to help me out a little. So, the only way to resolve it was to embrace both and just ‘not know’. Nothing matters, and at the same time, everything matters.

 

Since learning about paradoxes and contradictions, I have become obsessed and I love spotting them in every walk of life. From a young age I thought that everything needed to be logical, aligned and ‘make sense’. But it really doesn’t. This is not a truth that is easy to accept. We are all psychologically programmed to resist and resolve ‘cognitive dissonance’ – that discomfort we get when our ideas, attitudes or beliefs contradict one another. But it is possible to overcome that programming with a little effort.

 

And if we learn to embrace paradox and contradiction, rather than ‘solve’ it, we open ourselves to a whole new world of fascinating complexity which we can explore and engage with, rather than feel a need to resist and resolve. And this, in turn, makes life a hell of a lot more simple. Oh look by the way – another paradox!

 

Lesson 2: Your thoughts don't own or define you

 

In the world of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT for short), there is a concept called ‘cognitive fusion’. This is where we become ‘fused with’ or ‘caught up in’ our thoughts and feelings and begin to allow them to dictate our choices and our lives. Examples of this could be:

 

  • Imagining jumping off a balcony and thinking this means you must want to kill yourself.

  • Thinking an unkind thought about someone else and believing that makes you a bad person.

  • (To extend the example above) – Rationalising that life might be pointless, so there is no point continuing with life until you have ‘beaten’ or ‘resolved’ that thought.

 

This way of thinking is very common but it can be incredibly unhelpful. It can stand in the way of us experiencing the world in all its wonder as we become preoccupied with trying to ‘beat’ or ‘unthink’ our thoughts. Trying to find a ‘solution’ for these thoughts and find a way out of them can also lead us into far greater levels of psychological distress and discomfort.

 

Instead of ‘solving’ our uncomfortable thoughts, many psychologists suggest that we need to ‘defuse’ from them. This means, in effect, taking a mental ‘step back’ from our thoughts and allowing ourselves to make choices which lead us toward the things in life that we value as important. So instead of becoming embroiled in an emotional or intellectual battle inside of our own heads, we need to learn to accept the discomfort our thoughts, feelings and urges can cause. And we need to continue to do the things that are important for us – whether they bring us happiness, or not, in the short term.

 

If we get really good at this, we can sometimes learn to ‘enjoy the show’ going on inside our heads. Noticing paradoxes and contradictions can be one of these such things. It’s a much more enjoyable way of living, I reckon.

 

Martin, the clinical psychologist I work with, talks about this a little bit in his recent guest blog.

 

Lesson 3: Stop at nothing for good mental health

 

In some respect this links to my earlier point about making the most of life. If we buy the ‘everything matters’ side of the story, then I would say, "why on Earth would you want to waste your time on poor mental health?"

 

I’m so bored of the whole broken leg cliché but it does work well. And if you had a broken leg – how long would you tolerate that before going to the doctor? If we can push the analogy further, what would you do to avoid getting a broken leg?

 

The most ridiculous thing is – poor mental health is waaaaay worse than a broken leg. Yes, breaking a leg is shit and really painful and means you can’t go out and you have a struggle to get around. But at least you can still enjoy things like watching TV. At least you’re not scared that you’ll NEVER get better and you don’t have to confront existential dread on a minute by minute basis. And at least you can still look forward to all of the things you'll do when you do get better.

 

I’d actually be willing to bet that the worst bit of breaking a leg is the psychological aspect of it. The fact that you have to put life on hold for months is probably quite galling and after a while, would start to ‘get to you’. But that leads us back to our mental health right there.

 

Anyway, the point is this. We tend not to do anything like enough to help ourselves to lead mentally healthy lives. And I speak from personal experience. Here is a list of some bad decisions I have made when I’ve made in relation to my mental health:

 

  • Putting off taking medication because I wanted to prove I could get better on my own and prove I was ‘fine’

  • Going out and getting absolutely hammered for New Year’s Eve, then getting referred to a clinical psychologist by my GP because I had such a bad meltdown for the days after

  • Allowing mental health services to wait months to provide adequate care without doing anything about it

  • Remaining in a boring, unfulfilling job which contributed towards my depression

  • Cancelling a counselling session because I wanted to hang out with my mates and not going back

 

I now take a drastically different view. I’m not perfect by any stretch and I still fall off the wagon, so to speak, from time to time. But in general:

 

  • I am in full control of the treatment I get for my mental health and I have an established relationship with a very good psychologist (thanks Martin) who I can call upon when I have a wobble

  • I make sure I work in a job I enjoy and I (try to) monitor and notice ‘how I’m doing’ so that I can slow things down a bit where I need to

  • I have a very honest relationship with my boss and his boss about my mental health – work people, including HR, are looped in so that they can support me when I need a bit of help

  • I don’t drink bar the occasional sip of something

 

Why is this? Well, I can’t complain about where I’ve ended up. But life is awful when you have shit mental health and more than anything, feeling shit is just a waste of time. Perhaps I’d still be a bit of a basket-case but life would have been a hell of a lot less dramatic and traumatic for me and my family, had I learned this lesson 15 years ago. So – don’t compromise. Look after yourself out there, folks. Call the doctor. Pay the psychologist. Take the tablet. Have that scary chat with your boss or spouse. 

 

Lesson 4: Good family and friends are your greatest asset 

 

I don’t think I can overstate this enough and I’m probably sounding like a broken record. But it’s been enormously important to me to be open with my family and friends and make sure that I involve them in my mental health, since they have been my biggest pillar of support of all. Even my mates when I was 16 who had no idea what they were dealing with weren’t really dicks about it. Some took the piss a little, but most of them just wanted to see their mate Andy back to his normal self and even knowing that they were looking out for me and hadn’t given up on me was a great help.

 

It is true that you can’t choose your family and I think I’ve drawn a pretty good lot. Some in a less fortunate position will probably be thinking “that's easy for you to say”. But I chose Katherine (I think she chooses me too) and a big part of that is about how well she respects and supports my mental health. And the same applies to friends. If they don’t want to hear about it or want to avoid it, well, fuck ‘em. I have a life to live and my mental health is part of that. If they don’t make time for that, I won’t make time for them. This is too important and these are the people who find a way of making you keep on living when you have nothing left. 

 

Can I repay them? I suspect they might be generous and say that I can, or that it’s all worth it or something kind like that. At the end of the day, I suppose, it doesn’t really come down to an equation. But I make damn sure that I say thank you and show them how important they are for being there. And now again I even buy a drink or dinner, which is a rare thing for a Scotsman. I simply can't afford to lose them. And they are also quite nice to have around, generally.

 

On a serious note though, I spoke a while ago with a sport psychologist who did some research into professional footballers and resilience. While all of the players she researched had said they have access to support from family and friends, she found that those among them who were seen as most resilient were the ones who, when they had previously come into adversity in their lives, such as injury or failure, had accessed and utilised that support network to help them cope with and recover from those setbacks. On the other hand, those who were less resilient had never accessed that network in spite of having it available. Something to think about, I guess.

 

 

So, that’s it for now – a small selection of lessons learned about life having scaled Mount Depression four times, having traversed the Plane of Anxiety and after circumnavigating the Globe of OCD. Perhaps one day, you’ll see me standing at a plinth in a conference somewhere, sharing them in an after-dinner speech. About as likely as me summitting Everest, I’d say.

 

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