As the seasons change it’s hard not to notice the dark nights and wet and windy weather. I feel like I’m changing too. Until very recently I felt trapped within cycles that felt as closed and inevitable as the shifts in the seasons. I was very much in a state of learned helplessness; it felt pointless to try at anything, knowing it would just slip away as the circle turned again.
Cycles within cycles, within cycles. There have been symptom loops, mad hamster wheels of suicidality, of paranoia, of the even smaller cogs of rapid cycling. I got stuck in the Home Treatment Team’s revolving door, sometimes grateful for the familiarity, sometimes despairing. HTT? Really? Again?
Now it feels like I’ve come out of much bigger loop, a loop so large that even now I can only perceive part of it, so it appears more like an arc. It’s taken me until now to see those smaller loops as not simply spinning fruitlessly. They were part of that bigger picture; there was progress even though it was very slow. The cycles were more like coils in a long rope rather than independent closed systems. Every time I weathered a loop I ended up a little further along this rope, but I didn’t even know he was there.
I see other cycles at play. In 2012 and 2103 the role of mental health activist was something I fully embraced. I’d left my job in March 2011 and eventually had to accept that I would never return. It was a painful process and those small chances to make a difference were precious. I became very bound up in my role as “expert by experience”, sharing my story on Mind training courses, attending events on behalf of Mind and Rethink Mental Illness with health policy makers and strategists, MPs, the DWP and the media. It was a good way to claw back some self-esteem.
Sometimes I’m asked how I’d prefer to be referred to in a document or on a name badge. Like many freelancers, I struggle to pin my job title down. Some have recently suggested “campaigner” or “activist” and once I would have had no hesitation. These days I think I’ve moved on. Attending the Mind Media Awards this week was illustrative. Two years ago I knew so many people. This year I knew almost no one. And that’s OK. I still work for change and against stigma every day, just through different routes. I still do the odd bit of campaigning, as I hope to with Rethink next week, but it’s not central to who I am. I have found other communities in research, in patient and public involvement, in writing.
Aspects of myself that have been parked for years are now reemerging. What a slow, long loop they must be on – and what a contrast to the tiny frenetic coils of rapid cycling. Until recently I had no sense of control, unable to predict what would be happening to me next month, next week. Slowly I am daring to sign up for things without always adding the caveat, “If I’m well enough”. In fact I am daring to dream big. Maybe in a while I could manage a Master’s degree in research. Maybe even one day a PhD, giving me access to more opportunities in the research field.
During this same period I had little control over my body. A combination of quetiapine and overeating caused the most rapid and overwhelming changes to my body since pregnancy. I’m beginning to be able to be kinder to my body now, and to be kinder to myself on the days when I am not. I’m eating less sugar. I’m eating less meat and less processed food – not a conscious choice, more of an inclination. I am doing in a lot of yoga right now, 5-6 classes a week at The Power Yoga Company (you can read more about it here over at the BBC and here on the studio’s blog) and it’s probably changing me more than anything else. I am physically stronger. I have muscles I hadn’t known existed. I am more mentally focused and stable too, or so says Tom. At the heart of this is that I am in my body and not just dragging it around.
I feel slightly awkward about this next bit. I was raised in a non-religious household in which asking people about religious beliefs was impolite, but I am once again able to explore my spiritual side. I am squeamish about the trope, “spiritual but not religious” but it probably applies here. I’m a bit of a magpie when it comes to belief, something that will probably make some people turn up their noses at my lack of consistency.
As in earlier parts of my life yoga is making me more inward-looking, more meditative. Although I am resurrecting my sitting meditation practice, it’s early days so I’m seeking mindfulness in my daily life and in the moving meditation that is yoga. To aid mindfulness I am trying to have a day every so often where I just do what I am doing. I eat without having music or speech radio on. I try not to tweet and particularly not to deal with work emails. I am quiet, hardly speaking during the day until Tom comes home. And the mindfulness links to Buddhism and for me the whole caboodle links to Quakerism, something that has been sustaining me throughout this episode with its cheerful recognition and acceptance of varied spiritual paths.
As I become more inward-looking I don’t need the same kind of instantaneous emotional support. For years I have had my iPhone glued to my hand, unable to give my full attention to tasks, conversations or TV shows because I needed in a very physical sense to hang onto my support network. I don’t love my online friends any less but I just don’t feel the need to tweet as much. When I’m on the verge of a panic attack or when I experience a sudden and unexplained mood drop then I do elicit help. But mostly I can be happily out of contact with my phone for hours, only noticing its absence when I want to send a text or check the weather forecast. Only today my daughter texted a worried, “Mum??” because I hadn’t responded to her initial message.
I feel more rounded and more grounded. I am a person who can do things (for the moment at least). I don’t know where this long, slow loop will take me. I really hope I can build better foundations so that I am less easily knocked over. There were so many points in 2010 where I might’ve been able to lessen the blow of this episode but I didn’t have the tools and I didn’t understand what was happening anyway. So somehow I need to adopt a “never forget” attitude, whilst at the same time following one of favourite pieces of Quaker advice: live adventurously.
A note on my association with The Power Yoga Company. In the light of the whole “blogger blackmail” thing I thought I’d let you know that the writing I have done was in no way “payment” for the pass they gave me. This was a genuinely a shared project of mutual interest as to what could be achieved; if I’d managed three classes and dropped out, that would’ve been fine. They are the good guys.