A few years ago a terrible, shattering event ripped apart the substance of my life: everything I thought I knew, all the certainties which sustained me, were gone. No part of my life remained unscathed: like a forest fire, this event devastated everything in its path. I had no idea how I would survive financially, emotionally and mentally and I had two children to support, also financially, emotionally and mentally. Hard times lay ahead. For that first few months I sold things to pay my mortgage, took all the vitamins I could afford and lived minute by minute: I prayed to a god I wasn’t even sure existed. I took up running to protect my mental health. In short, did everything I could do to survive, including making a deep commitment in my heart to put my children first. I found a full time job and a therapist and slowly, bit by bit, the crisis passed. I reached a point where I could breathe again: my life had formed new patterns.
The crisis however, was just the tip of the ice-burg: I could now pay my bills, my children began to get over the trauma they had endured, but now I was stuck on a treadmill of work and caring for children, punctuated only by trips to the gym! Long story short at some point I just started to feel a bit broken: now the crises had passed, the dam began to break and I realised that, despite the fortnightly therapy, I had been so busy fighting fires, I had neglected to emotionally process what happened in the first place. I started feeling anxious, stopped sleeping properly and spiralled into depression. This was not the only time in my life I had felt this way: I had an episode of depression some years ago after a massive life change, but this time it felt huge: I was alone, caring for my kids. Who would pay the mortgage if I couldn’t? I told myself I couldn’t fall apart as my children relied on me but the more I told myself this, the more I felt myself breaking.
So, where to from here? One day during therapy, whilst moaning about my life, which was and continues to be, difficult, I had an epiphany. I realised that some of the issues I faced were to do with my inner landscape, that I expected a lot of myself, wouldn’t allow vulnerability or ask for help when I needed it, believed that other people were better than me and would reject me if I showed them I was in trouble and was often quite horrible to myself, allowing negative thought patterns to spiral out of control to the point where I was almost torturing myself. In the days and weeks that followed, I made some changes. For the first time in my life, I allowed myself to be vulnerable in a professional context: I approached my bosses at work and told them I was struggling with my personal life and mental health and asked for my hours to be reduced. At worst, I expected them to recoil in horror; at best, to question my suitability for the post I’m in, but to my surprise they were sympathetic and agreed to reduce my hours with immediate effect. I was amazed and immediately felt a little better. I then tentatively began to open up a little to my colleagues, and found that they too had problems, personal issues and/or past mental health problems: they were largely sympathetic and kind. It really helped knowing that I was not alone, because in my experience depression is a kind of profound loneliness, in which one is stuck in the powerfully negative thought patterns of one’s own creation.
This now, also began to change. I still felt, and feel, at times, anxious and depressed but now, I don’t panic. The two most useful phrases I have learned to say to myself are ‘it’s ok to feel like this’ and ‘these are just feelings.’ This gives me needed perspective. It’s OK to feel sad, or anxious and everyone does from time to time: it does not make me, or you, crazy, stupid or less than anyone else. In fact, it makes us human, complex and normal…And as much as sadness, or fearfulness don’t feel good, they are just feelings: worrying about feeling them, or the consequences of feeling them, allows them to take over and magnifies them until they become overwhelming. Understand that when you feel something, that’s it, you just feel it, nobody dies, and if you accept it, that is as bad as it gets: I have literally gone from feeling terrible to fine in 5 minutes by just thinking this thought, instead of running away from my feelings, or becoming angry or upset about them. Eventually, you may even begin to welcome these feelings, sit quietly with them and converse: if you can, they will teach you about yourself. (More on this later)
I know that changing your mental thought patterns is easier said than done and of course I often have moments where it feels too difficult to manage. I’m not a yogi, Buddha or Jesus. But I know that when it does work, it works faster and more effectively than any pill you can get from a doctor. So, if you are sitting there now, feeling sad, close your eyes and stop running, tell yourself that what you feel is part of being human, ask the weight in your belly, or the flutter in your heart to be your friend and see what happens. You are not alone.