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10 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me in My Darkest Times

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Mental health is finally getting the attention it deserves. Many of us are aware of the limitations of the NHS for both physical and mental health care. On top of this we grapple with the limited provision of therapies, extensive waiting lists etc. Lots of you will be familiar with my laments/diatribes on the subject. More and more we are being told to rely on self-care with various sources providing clinical and not-so-clinical advice on the subject. Using the benefit of my lived experience of depression and anxiety I decided to turn my own hand to the topic; everyone else seems to be doing it! Below you will find my top 10 pieces of advice.

1. Work at being happy, not perfect. Society shows us an unattainable vision of perfection. Many of us strive to fulfill this and in our failure berate ourselves. We’re all doing it, but we shouldn’t be. Instead, work at being happy, not every minute of the day but as often as possible. Invest in doing things you love with people you love. To me this is the surest path to happiness I can think of.

2. Sometimes all you can be is OK. Happiness can be extremely elusive and hard to come by. Naturally we are not all happy all the time – although I’ve often been told I should be. Expecting ourselves to be is an added stress we don’t need. Some days, weeks or even some months all we can manage is OK, and that’s fine!

3. Perspective. Perspective. Perspective. For some people, realizing their insignificance in the population, world, universe is a comforting thought. Being such a minor part of the population takes the pressure off to perform miracles. This is their perspective. For me, I like to think each human has great power to affect change. I acknowledge how small my mistakes are in the grand scheme of things. I have the power to do something great, but I also have the power to remedy a mistake or lessen its impact rather than being disheartened and giving up. Working on that is a far more productive use of time and energy.

4. Treat yourself the way you would a friend. As people we (most of us) will jump at the chance to help a friend. Or on our less “happy” days we may begrudgingly agree to something, even if our own to-do list is out of control and our stress levels are so high we’re sure we’re on the verge of explosion. Yet we still say yes. When it comes to looking after ourselves, to being kind to ourselves, I find humans rather lacking. We don’t make time to look after ourselves when many of us would bend heaven and earth to help a friend. This has got to stop.

5. Celebrate the victories. However small or seemingly insignificant, they’re our victories, we achieved them. If no one else is going to acknowledge this, we should. It doesn’t matter if our achievement seems silly. Sometimes getting out of bed for the day, surviving work, taking a new route on public transport, going to the corner shop etc. can be all that we can manage on a given day. We did it. We deserve to recognize this. To quote Debby of QAF (Queer as Folk) fame: “Mourn the losses, for they are many, but celebrate the victories because they are few”. I can think of worse mantras.

6. Just one moment at a time. Or one step at a time. Whichever way you see it, whatever way it works for you. Sometimes when we’re struggling we can only see to the end of the next minute or moment. We don’t need to look any further forward unless we want to. At times we just need to get through one minute and then the next. When I’m not feeling well, whether mental or physical, I remind myself it’s only time passing. I don’t know how much time needs to pass, but it can’t last forever. I will feel better.

7. Allow yourself to feel. You don’t need to hide it. There’s so much pressure on us to present our best face, to put our best foot forward. On occasion the pressure to hide how I feel, to not burst in to tears, to control the rising tide of panic, is much worse than the emotions themselves. The fear of exposing myself, of being vulnerable, of losing control is terrifying. But we do need to feel. We have the right to take ownership of our feelings. We shouldn’t have to hide them, or be made to feel that we should, although often we feel we do. If you’re not in the right place to feel, to be open (because realistically there are some scenarios where we can’t crawl into a ball or shut down) then make sure you give yourself time to do this. Find a time, place, somewhere you feel safe and let go.

8. Separate your anxieties from the anxieties of other. The people around us often share their anxieties. Having a friend to listen to is valuable. Many of us are those friends for others, but we need to proceed with caution. There is a difference between listening, supporting, even providing advice and absorbing our friends’ stress for ourselves. One time at work I spent time supporting a colleague through
work-induced anxieties. By the end of the day I was knackered and stressed even though I’d had a comparatively easy day. My boss asked me how much of what I was carrying was not mine to carry. This forced the realization that I’d absorbed my colleague’s anxieties. This was one of the most valuable things I’ve ever been told. Once I realized the fears were not my own, that I had done what I could, I could release the stress and felt my burden ease . This is a cautionary tale. By all means keep helping people, we all need someone to listen to us. Just be careful and look after yourself.

9. Recognize that you deserve help, then ask for it. Often we don’t know where to turn. We’re unsure what organizations are out there, who can support us. With the doom-and-gloom news headlines surrounding the provision of mental health care (me included – guilty as charged!) it’s no wonder. Some us may feel guilty. We have great lives, so why do we feel this way? We should be able to control our feelings, we shouldn’t be using up resources. If we try and talk to friends they
won’t understand. Maybe we’re embarrassed. It took me a long time to open up to anyone, and it didn’t go as planned. Until I started looking I didn’t realize how many brilliant charities there were or how many people had had experiences like mine. Mental health can get bad press in society. We’re made to feel that the struggle is in our head, that it’s something we can control, that it’s not serious, or as serious as a physical health problem. Let’s put these ideas to bed once and for all. If we have a mental health problem then we have an illness, and as with any illness we deserve help.

10. Know who’s doing the talking. Many of us may have discouraging, negative or downright abusive thoughts in our head. Thoughts we find hard to ignore or turn off. Thoughts which convince ourselves that we’re not good enough, that no one loves us, that we’re bad at what we do, that the world is better of without us. Before we can combat these thoughts we need to recognize just who is doing the talking. These thoughts aren’t us; it’s our illness. That may not mean we can drown then out, but knowing where the thoughts come from is a first step.

I hope these ideas are of some help. They’re the sort of thing I wish someone had told me in my darkest times. Perhaps they may not have helped me, I may not have listened, but it would have made me feel less alone.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

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Thinkstock image by red tea

Originally published: December 7, 2016
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