Have been finding it difficult to write anything of a personal nature at the moment. A few days ago I started writing about how, since the start of the lockdown, I have finally reached a kind of equilibrium. Adaptation to the new normal, at least, the current new normal.

It almost feels like emotional numbness. Maybe it is. While here in the SW we have experienced little of Covid itself, living with the lockdown measures has been a strain, as it has for everyone else.

While I was able to continue working and so maintain something of the old normal, seeing my family dealing with much greater restriction was hard to do. Wished I could have done something to ease the difficulty of it.

At the moment I have an appetite for stories. Am listening and watching and reading in far greater quantities than usual. I’m sure this is a reaction to everything that has gone on. Think I have read somewhere that this is a Thing.

Living a socially paired down existence means there is less pressure to deal with the social anxiety. This is not such a good thing, as what momentum I had gained through doing the CBT has somewhat stalled.

Maybe I shouldn’t be to hard on myself. Maybe accept that right now is a time to take a breather and recharge. Enjoy time with my family. Enjoy the stories.

Last year, I was voraciously reading forum posts and articles relating to mental illness. It was the early days after my wake up call and I was trying to learn as much as I could. From time to time I would come across someone voicing the question ‘Where do I end and my mental illness begin?’

It was reassuring to see others express this as it reflected what was going through my mind.

What is this thing in my head, messing with my mind?

I was experiencing a sense of horror; I was not clear which parts were me and which parts were the illness. It was overwhelming.

Considering the question of ends and beginnings further, I began to ask was this even the right question? It presupposes that there is a defined border between our true selves and mental illness. I think it is helpful to recognise what behaviours or thought processes can be attributed to a mental illness. And some people recommend treating your illness as almost a separate entity. Even naming it.

Unsurprisingly though, as time has moved on I have begun to view the relationship between me and the illness as much more complex. Sometimes it is really obvious that a thought or action comes from the illness. But often it is not until much later that I realise what has been behind some thought process or other. Automatic Negative Thoughts or ANTs are one of the things you learn about when researching mental health issues and as the name suggests these happen without you even realising. (They are also called Negative Automatic Thoughts but NATs is not so much fun as ANTs).

Probably due to living with social anxiety disorder for so many years, I have become adept at avoiding situations that I deem threatening, but presenting myself and others with reasons why I can’t do a thing that are totally unrelated to anxiety. A form of denial that I often don’t recognise until later.

So I do think the question is valid, it’s just that it is not always quite so binary but something more nuanced. Learning to discern what is rational and what is not takes a long time. And that’s just part of learning to live with and overcome mental illness.

Came across this research paper on social anxiety disorder and one sentence stood out, as it sheds some light on the unresolved question of how can it take so long to realise there is something going on:

Owing to the early onset and chronicity of SAD, many individuals may also believe that these symptoms are part of their personality and therefore cannot be changed.

Makes me feel better.

Tawny owlFor a bird with a reputation for being secretive, jays make an almighty racket when the occasion calls for it.

Yesterday, a walk in the woods. A jay kicks off in the trees above me. Spotted movement amongst the branches. There it was, getting in the face of a tawny owl. It would fly onto the branch next to the owl, squawk in its face and fly off again. Meanwhile, she would give a little ‘tu-whit’ in response.

Full disclosure: there is an owl box nearby that is currently occupied, so I had an idea what the fuss was all about.

Went and got my camera.

The jay had gone. The owl was now higher up in the tree, staring down at me, staring up at her.

Being watched by a creature like that is always a thrill. Enjoyed the moment and left her too it.

Thinking about the last year. Mental health. Anxiety. Depression. It’s taken a long time to come to a point of acceptance. Even now, the anxious mind questions the seriousness of it all. Little doubts here and there.

Are you sure you’re not just imagining all this?

This is not a patch on the problems some people have.

The one question that I still have yet to make peace with is how did it take so long to realise the nature of the problem? To get to this age and the penny not really drop.

Still wrestling with this one. The best answer for the moment is the boiling frog metaphor.

As an anxious child there is no alternative reality that shows yours is atypical. You grow up adapting your life around maladaptation. Avoidance. And that just reinforces the whole process. A negative feedback loop. And before you know it, that water is boiling.

Looking back I can see many wrong turns. It is hard not to feel regret. But equally I am here, right now, in a much better place. With a lot of living to do.

So if that means taking the time to stare up at an owl staring back at me, that’s what I’ll do.

A while back Colin Walker commented on a post of mine:

Mental health awareness has come on in leaps and bounds recently but, for many, that’s still all it is: an awareness. We need to convert that into an understanding.

Fortunately, we are more aware of mental health issues today, certainly compared to how it was when I was growing up. Prior to facing up to my own issues I considered that I had a basic appreciation of what having a mental illness meant. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Learning about the condition I live with has entailed finding out about mental health issues more generally. I have been shocked at how little I really knew about even the more common illnesses like depression and anxiety, let alone more serious ones. I have also had to realise that I am not without my prejudices.

I’m sure greater understanding will come from mental health being discussed more openly. If we can get to a place of better understanding then this in turn will, I hope, lead to greater empathy. Given that most of us will be touched by mental illness at some point in our lives more empathy can only be a good thing.

It doesn’t matter if it is for those who have a diagnosable illness or are simply experiencing the day to day stress of life, I hope that my own experience has increased my empathy for others.

It is a year ago today since I first recognised something of what was going on with my mental health. It has been a long 12 months, going through various states of mind as I have tried to come to terms with it all.

I haven’t posted much on the subject of late, largely because I have been receiving CBT since January and it is prettty intense. I have now finished the course except for a couple of follow up sessions and it seems a good time to reflect on both the therapy and the last year.

There is so much to think about that no one single post will cover it so I am planning to do a number of posts – planning, I emphasise! They probably won’t be posted in any kind of organised way either…

While I have experienced a whole gamut of emotions digging into what has been going on, with a bit of perspective that a year gives me, I can safely say that addressing my mental health has been one of the best things I have done in a long time.

That’s not to say that it has all felt good by any means – some of the time it has been bloody awful and I’ve questioned my ability to continue. Nor is it to say that all is done and dusted. I suspect I will continue to live with mental illness (I shall call it what it is) for a long time to come, but in amongst the negatives I have a greater understanding of myself and the nature of mental health, some tools to help me on my way and a sense of hope.

I have found it hard to write this week. Anxiety, tiredness and addressing the banal have consumed any time or energy that I might otherwise have had to write. Thoughts have passed through my head and some I have even jotted down, but putting them together into something coherent has felt beyond my reach.

The beginning of the week was not easy. My wife and I are both self-employed and what with a lack of financial help from the government and the start of the lockdown, to say my anxiety went through the roof is not an overstatement. I know there are many who are in an even more precarious position but nonetheless this was not a place I wanted to be in. I don’t think it helped knowing that the government was quite generously helping others. Difficult not to feel angry.

On Tuesday I think I my body ran on adrenaline alone, as my mind spent the day whirling around, catastrophising and doing its fight-or-flight dance of agitation. It didn’t help that the mobile networks seemed to be down either so trying to make phone calls was nigh on impossible.

Subsequently, I was exhausted and ended up having tension headaches for most of the week.

Thankfully, put under pressure to act, the government have now done something similar for the self-employed, so we can relax a little knowing there is a safety net.

I am due to get my next batch of meds and discovered that our surgery is currently unable to get them. Luckily a local pharmacy has them so no problems there but does this mean more people are being prescribed antidepressants because of the pandemic?

On a more human level there has been a second positive to the week. I don’t find it easy to trust people – not an uncommon thing, but I think my mental health issues contribute towards a difficulty with interpersonal relationships. But over the week I have seen a side to people that I don’t expect. By its very nature, the relationship we have with our clients is transcactional – I don’t expect any more from them. But some of them have gone beyond that this week in understated ways that show they think of us as people and not just a business.

And that means a lot.