As part of our Sharing Wellness campaign, we have encouraged our staff, volunteers and the people we work with to discuss what keeps them well. I found this anonymous submission in my inbox and thought it was a perfect example of how staying resilient during difficult periods of life is a personal process, and is often supported by small, frequent acts of self-care.
I wouldn’t say I’ve been mentally ill in my life; there are times when I feel I’ve been close to it, but even at the time I’ve been aware that it’s to do with the situation I’m in, and once I can change my situation, everything else will improve too. I’m aware of my mental health as something that needs looking after in the same way that my physical health does, and as 1 in 4 of us will experience mental illness at some time in our lives, there’s always that possibility.
I’ve been known to talk about the Venn diagram of Life. My circles are health, house, work, and relationships (including family and friends). I used to joke that I could never get all the circles sorted out simultaneously, and that I’ve had maybe six months in my life where all the circles overlap properly and I can colour in that centre bit in a nice shiny gold!
I thought I was getting there recently. I’d just started a new job after 18 months of knowing I was in the wrong one, some fraught relationships between friends had settled down in to something I could cope with, there was nothing major wrong with the house, and my previous health issues were under control. Then waddyaknow, the universe decides to pull the rug from under my feet; my brother was diagnosed with terminal and untreatable cancer, with a prognosis of weeks rather than months. The hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life was leave my brother in hospital that night and come home and tell my mum what the doctors had told us. I promised both of them that we will do this together and – somehow – find the strength and resilience to come out of it the other end. So looking after my mental health is more important than ever.
Here are some of the things that help me:
Quiet time alone. I don’t know if that makes me an introvert, but spending time in my house, on my own, usually with a book to hand, has always been essential to me. A friend’s daughter refers to it as ‘de-peopleing.’ Cats are also good (especially black ones!)
Music, especially making it. I’m a singer and musician, and whereas there are all sorts of scientifically proven ways that singing improves your physical and mental health, I simply feel better after a good sing. Song writing and arranging music is also helpful; it takes up so much of my brain that there isn’t room to think of anything else, and suddenly hours have gone by.
Spending time outdoors or with nature. My garden bird feeder is one of the best presents I’ve ever had. It’s usually full of starlings and sparrows, but I’ve had over 30 species of birds in my tiny urban garden and I enjoy going out with my local RSPB group and to nature events too.
Friends and family. My friends live all over the country, so for me social media is a positive thing as it helps keep me connected with them.
Sleep. For myself I find fewer hours of good-quality sleep are better than more hours of restless sleep or a night filled with stupid dreams. A warm shower, lavender oil, and a dark, cool room all help make this happen.
Good food and a glass of wine, especially in the company of people I love – although I have to be careful not to overdo this one!
Counting my blessings – the type where I think of the things I appreciate and am grateful for, rather than the type where I compare myself with people who are far worse off than me, which just makes me feel guilty!
Not being afraid/ashamed to say you can’t cope or to ask for help. I think this one will be really important. I don’t know how the next few weeks are going to go, and although I know there will be lots of practical and emotional things to cope with, I’m sure I haven’t thought of them all yet. What I do know is that the people who have said, ‘oh, let us know if there’s anything we can do’ have meant it, and have already been absolutely brilliant, whether that’s been with moving sofas, sorting out hospital transport, emailing me funny things to make me laugh, or just letting me talk things through. Listening to and learning from others who have coped with similar experiences has also been helpful, and I will go and see my doctor if I need to.
I’ve found this hard to write and I’ve chosen to keep it anonymous, but I know my colleagues will probably recognise me from what I’ve written. They’ve been brilliant too, and their understanding and flexible approach has helped keep me at work, and working productively for most of the time. Without that, I think I would certainly have been signed off sick for a while.