Yesterday, I discussed my experiences from ten years ago, and my own sudden descent into a mental breakdown.
If you didn’t catch it, you can do so here. I’ve been open about struggles I have had in the past, and also about how you can overcome your issues and regain control of your own life. After my article yesterday, I had a few people message me asking what I did, day-to-day to help turn my life around. I thought that I’d help, just sharing the tricks and bits of advice that have helped me move forward. Remember, I’ve been fine for almost five years now, and I haven’t suffered what I would consider being mental illness in ten years. That’s because of much of what you are about to read.
I’ve fought problems at three key points in my life, once in 2001, again in 2011 and for the final time in late 2016. All three occasions have been different because, like ‘physical illness’, mental illness problems can manifest themselves in a number of ways. That would be the first thing I’d urge you to consider: if you are ‘ill’, in a physical sense, then you would combat your illness differently depending on what it was. You wouldn’t put a bandage on a dicky tummy, nor take antibiotics for a sprained ankle, but both are a physical illness, of sorts. Different illnesses have different causes, symptoms and solutions, and mental health is not a ‘one size fits all’. In 2011, I had a severe issue, but 2016 was all about stress and anxiety, but not a complete collapse. To put it into a physical health context, if 2016 was a headache, 2011 was a fractured skull.
I started by saying yesterday you should talk to people, but nobody can be there for you all day, every day. For me, the demons came at night when the phone got put down and MSN Messenger got turned off. It came knocking on the door when my eyes were closed and the lights were out. Whatever problems you have, you must discuss them with the right people and seek help, but here are a few practical things to try that may, or may not, help you out in those minutes and hours between help and advice.
Don’t Be Labelled
First up, don’t be labelled. If you wake up and feel low, don’t think you’re on the brink of serious mental illness. Always try to think of mental illness in the same terms as physical illness. You can sometimes feel a bit sick for a day because of a dodgy meal, yes? Well, you might feel a bit down for a day because of a bad phone call or social interaction, but that is normal. We all get that, just as we all get the odd upset tummy. If you do feel a bit low, don’t instantly feel like you are spiralling into depression, because you might find yourself doing it without realising, like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you feel low one day, try not to wallow in it, you can try to get on with things, or just say to loved ones ‘today isn’t a great day’. If that becomes two or three days, then a week, that’s the time to seriously talk and address the issues.
Sleep is vitally important for any mental health sufferer, and it was a lack of sleep that drove my breakdown in 2011. I went without for three solid nights, and that brings problems all of its own. Whilst a good night’s sleep might seem beyond you, it is imperative to try to do the best you can. Do not drink fizzy drinks, sugary drinks or caffeine drinks before bed, and ideally don’t drink much at all several hours before you go to bed. If you are haunted by your own thoughts, then waking up needing the loo can mean no more sleep for the night. How frustrating is it to be dogged by negative thoughts, fall asleep, only to wake up at 4 am and that be that? I was prescribed Zopiclone in 2011, which certainly helped, and a good night’s sleep is really important. Try not to stare at screens before bed either. I know this seems a bit obvious, but if you can get more than six or seven hours sleep, you will feel better.
I forced myself to become distracted whenever I started to crash in those first few weeks. I remember in the week after I’d first been to the doctors, my Mum took me to Gibraltar Point, we had a bacon sandwich in the pouring rain and drove home. It was unremarkable except for one thing; I was forced to do something else. It’s why I remember it, and why it hasn’t just become a blur like the rest of that period. Football works too, even if the team don’t play well. My first game after my breakdown was Rotherham at home, where we lost 6-0. To be honest, I’m surprised it didn’t make me worse, but I remember going with my mate Lee, leaving at 5-0 and having a soft drink in the Lincolnshire Poacher before heading home. Again, I remember it because it was not me, alone with my thoughts. Do something that might take your mind away from how you feel, be it reading a book, watching a film or football, even just visiting your family or friends. It will help briefly.
Try To Worry
This sounds silly, right? Well, not so much if you look at it this way. Depression, stress, anxiety and the like are almost always based around some kind of worry. It might be a worry about not being good enough, about having to do something or about how others see you. Try to set a rule for yourself – when darkness sets in, promise yourself you won’t worry all of the time. Instead, set aside half an hour as your ‘worry time’, and outside of that just promise yourself, you’ll save the worry up until then. It is very hard to worry on demand, so you might find yourself panicking much less. When I heard this strategy (and it was 2016, not 2011), I thought it sounded like a load of bollocks, until I tried it. Also, remember how pointless worry is. You are either concerned about something you can’t change, and therefore wasting your time, or about something that won’t happen anyway, and again are wasting your time.
Understand The Mind Map is Not a Territory
This one helps me, even now, and it might take a bit of explaining. I actually learnt this when I studied to become a hypnotherapist (the lesson on the day we drew 1-1 with Notts County on the opening game of the 2006/07 season. Adie Moses scored I think….). Basically, your mind builds a map of the world in your head, not a physical map, but images, thoughts and feelings that dictate how you behave. It might tell you the guy on the counter at your local supermarket doesn’t like you, so you consciously avoid his queue each time. It might tell you that you can only enjoy a night down the pub if you have a gram of cocaine with you, or convince you that you can’t talk to the opposite sex because you’ll make a fool of yourself. It creates a roadmap for you to live your life, to protect you from perceived threats, but it will get things wrong. How your mind sees the world is not how the world is, and you must remember that when anxiety sets in. The guy in the supermarket is probably just unhappy himself and seems surly because of it, but doesn’t judge you. You only think you can’t talk to the opposite sex because you are self-conscious, and nobody needs cocaine to have a good time. Once you understand that things are not at all how you think, you can begin to explore how they actually are. think now about something you believe to be true about how someone feels towards you. Do you know it, for sure? Probably not. The same goes for how you feel about yourself. If you think you’re rubbish at something, are you, really? Or do you judge yourself harshly? I bet it is the latter.
I feel this needs to go in, not because of my own experiences though. I never had a good counsellor, nor got anything from counselling, but a lot of people have and it is really important that you consider the option. Trained professionals may be able to help you in a way a good night’s sleep and trying not to worry can’t. You see, I knew eventually I could beat my problems, a bit like running off a sore ankle, but if your ankle is broken you can’t run it off, or if your mental health problems run deeper, then counselling might help. I guess being open to things others say doesn’t work is really important too. Just because I didn’t find help in the NHS structure, doesn’t mean hundreds of people who do are wrong.
Finally, one of the most important things is to ensure you stay physically healthy even if you are not in a good place mentally. Again, it sounds so basic, but try to eat regular meals and keep to a decent schedule. Even if you are furloughed, out of work or whatever, create a reason to get out of bed and a reason to have a structure. I said yesterday it was Blipfoto for me, I forced myself out of bed to take a photo each day, and when I had it needed processing, words needed writing and I had to upload it. Then I’d spend some time on the site interacting with others, I had a creative purpose. I could easily have stayed in bed until lunchtime, got up and stayed in PJs and then just watched crap TV, but I would have been plagued by thoughts the whole time. You might not do photos, but why not a blog, or maybe you go out running? I don’t know what it is, but do something. Just make sure you have a healthy routine, so the body knows when night comes, you sleep, when the sun comes up, it is time to get up. Eat well, not just junk food and whatever you do, DO NOT mask your suffering with drink or drugs. They give a temporary high, a sweet release, but every hangover or comedown makes thing a little worse.
I know, I’ve got a bit preachy over the last few days, but from time to time I get an ‘I don’t know what to do’ message from someone who read my book, or just knows I’ve been there and bounced back. Saying things like ‘talk’ and ‘get help’ is easy, but your life doesn’t jump from one session with a doctor to your next phone call, it is filled with seconds, minutes and days which can seem to take an age to pass by when you’re trying to feel better. They say the devil makes work for idle hands, and by the same token, he makes mischief for idle minds.
Whatever you are going through, you can beat it. You might think others judge you, but that is your mind telling you the world is one way, when it is actually another. You might think drink and fags make you feel better, but they’re a mask, just like Poacher’s head was for me (and drink and fags..). You might think sleeping all day is a good way of avoiding problems, but it isn’t, it is just making you awake and alert for when darkness comes and those little demons, rats or black dogs take over your brain.
Get help and talk, yes, but in those pockets of time in between try to stay busy, engaged in something, and as physically healthy as you can. That’s what I did, and it is how I took those small steps away from complete breakdown and towards what I am today, which is just a bloke happy with his life, going about his business who sleeps relatively well at night.