Mostly I look to write about writing, about being an entrepreneur and sometimes I stray into the academic side of things. In fact, today I write about anxiety and depression, and how they can linger in the periphery of some days, encroach more forcefully on others, and absorb the rest. It would be wrong to think that such difficulties do not fall into the above category. Because it’s health. And everybody has it.
This absolutely excellent cartoon from Robot Hugs sums up the disconnect between how people think about mental and physical illness. Even those of us who have experience with the former can still think of some types of ‘being unwell’ entirely differently. I feel less guilty about staying in bed for a week when I have the flu. But when I have the Sad Flu, I am somehow at fault. The virus of Sad is not ‘real’ like the flu virus. However, they are both bastards.
So rather than thinking about mental illness, today I am thinking specifically about mental health. Some people have long-term conditions, like diabetes, which are potentially fatal but ultimately manageable with treatment. Others might have conditions that are often dormant and subject to flare-ups. Some will have serious, difficult and unhappy conditions that last years, a lifetime, and touch every part of their life.
But we all have mental health.
When I was first prepping this blog it was October and I was reacting to a number of posts and pieces around World Mental Health day. I connected with this a lot. I thought back then: why shouldn’t there be others out there who might connect with me? Heaven knows a blog about inverted commas is hardly less esoteric. I wanted to tie it in with these other posts, and for it to be my own contribution to mental health awareness. The irony being, my mental health wasn’t really up to the task, and the piece languished.
Every time I came back to the blog since October, it was a relic of an unhealthy time, and it seemed so tied to the topical posts I had been reading at the time. I decided I needed an ‘in’ before it was worth writing. Another one hasn’t presented itself until now (I tell myself) when, on Sunday, David Weir won the men's wheelchair race at the London Marathon. It was his seventh such win and he broke the world record.
In his post-race interview this man spoke frankly, casually even, about the fact that up until a few months ago he didn’t know if he would make the start line to the race because of a state of depression which made facing such a gruelling challenge nearly impossible. As if it was possible to be more impressive, this man talked so apparently easily about struggles with his emotional health in terms which other athletes might have talked about physical injuries or complications to be overcome. At the same time, a man who nine years ago had been considering suicide on Waterloo Bridge, and was rescued by the kindness and a coffee of a stranger, completed the marathon with that very stranger, raising money and awareness for Heads Together.
My own mental health fluctuates in a predictable cycle: I’m increasingly anxious about a low patch until work comes in, and it can be paralysing. When I actually have the work to do (and oddly, it doesn’t matter how interesting the work is, or how much I actually really love doing it at the time) getting it done by the deadline can then become something I am fighting to do – all I want is to lie down, and wait for it to go away. When it’s all done, then I have a wonderful feeling of relief again! Hurrah! Now I can go back to not having to do that work and focus on writing or promoting or whatever it was I was doing before that work came in. Oh yes, I remember, I was worrying about not having a job. Lemme just lie down here…
I have written blogs about how to overcome, or just combat, some of the challenges I have faced as a writer and as a self-employed person. I’ve suggested being kind to yourself, finding co-workers and asking for help when you need it. This time I haven’t yet had any kind of epiphany, or I promise I would certainly have written sooner. This is one I have been muddling over for most of my life. What I feel now is that the pressure is real it’s there and it’s scary.
One of the things that really does help is running. I don’t often run more than 5k at a go, at my peak I was running three times a week, and I’ve done a couple of organised 10k runs. It forces me to leave the house, it gives me time to think and it helps me feel productive. Exercise releases happy chemicals (I’m reliably informed) and it’s a good trick for getting out of bed when you really feel like you can’t.*
When I do get out there and run, when I’m exhausted and want to stop, I don’t just stop. I can’t. Because I’m 3k from my house and that’s where the kettle lives. I can slow down, I can walk, but like it or not, I have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. If I really needed to I could get the bus, but I can’t stop and sit on the side of the road forever. However I do it, I have to get home. The choice I have is how.
It’s okay to be scared, to feel the pressure, it’s okay to not feel like fighting it, not feel like pushing through. I’ve decided that in fact it’s ‘okay’ to let the Sad virus win for a week, when it has to. But, ultimately, if it’s this week or next week, there comes a time when I have to get up, brush off the toast crumbs, put on some pants, and get back out there.
A line from Martin Luther King** puts it better than my 1200 words can:
If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.
Completing this blog in itself represents a step forward. Just the one, mind, I still have lots of work to do and sometimes not much of an incentive to do it. But completing an unfinished blog from seven months ago feels like a step in the right direction. Put the kettle on.
*top tip – strip the bed and put the washing in before you leave for your run. You can’t get back in when you come home, and you have lovely clean sheets to make you feel like a human at the end of the day.
** this shouldn’t surprise anyone.