Crazy talk

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I’m going to talk about mental health. It’s not an easy thing to talk about; partly because of the stigma, although that tide is on the way out. Mostly because, for many people, it can be hard to define. Good or bad, mental health is a vague, shapeless thing, often recognisable only in the negative spaces. I think you know when something’s wrong but do you know when something’s right? Do you know how to articulate what’s wrong?

I found myself in this position recently, having finally decided to talk to our company’s welfare counsellor. It took a while to build up the courage and make the appointment – what finally made the decision for me was the need to do something about my mental health not for me, but for the effect it is having on my partner and my friends. I can be as self-indulgent and -destructive as I please, but I have no right to take anyone else down with me. So she asked me what I wanted to talk about, and I said that I was struggling. I couldn’t think of another, less euphemistic way to describe it than that. Just that I was struggling, and I knew that the way I respond to things wasn’t normal, and I needed to do something about it.

I described being so stressed that I vacillated between insomnia and fatigue; actually, tiredness so profound it was paralysing. I described getting home from work one day and slumping to the floor in front of the sofa, unable to get up on to it to be more comfortable, unable to move at all, frozen there until Andy came home an hour later and helped me up. I described being in chronic pain quite a lot of the time for no specific reason and in no specific area, alleviated only by a good long run. I said that I suffered panic attacks. She stopped me there.

“What do you mean by panic attacks?”

As soon as I said it I realised it was a daft thing to say. I had grasped for a phrase to explain what I normally – again, euphemistically – call ‘episodes’, where terror grips my heart for no apparent reason and I burst into hysterics, hyperventilate, become numb, become paralysed, all at once. But of course it’s not panic and it isn’t an attack. I hate that phrase anyway – it infers that a panic attack is something that happens to you: a passive activity thrust upon you, an external influence. It isn’t, of course. It comes from within, it is created in my head and there is an unconscious decision to unleash it. It is, perhaps more appropriately, a stress response, and I am – to some extent – responsible for it.

If what I’ve described there is the tip of the dagger, then what comes next is the wound, which bleeds out if left unchecked. The emotional effort of an “episode” has a very physiological effect on me, quite similar to the effort of a marathon but without the endorphins. Or the sense of achievement. Or the permission to eat tons of cake. The most noticeable effect is that it wears me out, which is probably my body forcing me to rest by simply rendering me immobile for a day or two, but the flipside is that if I have to stay awake for any reason (you know, like gainful employment) I end up behaving like an overtired toddler at a New Year’s Eve party. Only now am I waking up naturally after less than ten hours of sleep; for the best part of 2017 I’ve been going to bed before half 8 (when I am able), and either being wrenched awake at half 7 the following morning feeling like the living dead, or staying awake until the small hours panicking about utter bollocks and seeing a liquid three hours of tearful, fearful sleep. I don’t think either of those make me a fun person to work with.

In fact I have a little sleep app which I set when I go to bed, which measures REM cycles and quality of sleep and on which I record notes relating to my day, such as whether I drank tea, coffee or alcohol, whether I worked out, whether it was a stressful day. Using that information it can tell me how those parameters affect my sleeping habits; it is not surprising that a stressful day generally correlates with poor quality sleep but working out and a solid 8 hours tends to give a higher score. It did, however, turn out to be a surprise one day when I noticed that for the first time since starting to use the app regularly I didn’t tick the box for “drank coffee”. I went one day without coffee. In over two years. Which makes the coffee parameter somewhat irrelevant and the whole enterprise less than scientific.

I say “less than scientific”: it’s just an iPhone app, a product designed to meet the current trend for simulated empiricism (among other things), so that people have the illusion of control over their lives because a fitness or lifestyle or health app is helping them track their every move. Scientifically speaking this kind of data analysis is at best valueless and irrelevant; or at least, it’s about as relevant as those Facebook quizzes that list your character attributes (they’re never really negative are they?) based on the third letter of your name or the date you were born. My point is that this very unscientific thing, this cynical tool of consumerist juzsh, has become a crutch in my daily life simply because I’m afraid of losing control, and this app makes me feel as though I have it. Copy and paste for MyFitnessPal.

Which brings me to what I believe is the contributing factor to these episodes: a fear of loss of control. My family, god love them, will tell you this is nothing new; I’ve been called a control freak many times before and not usually in the context of a compliment. The mistake I think they make – perhaps I should stop putting words in their mouths if I don’t want to be called a control freak – is that they think what I desire is control over everything, when in truth all I need is control over a fraction of myself. Control over everything? I’m not that ambitious. And I don’t like other people enough to care about controlling them. I just want to feel the tips of my own fingers.

Because that’s literally where every episode takes me. To the feeling that every molecule in my body becomes loose and starts to float away, that the bonds between them disintegrate and I become nothing. This is a waking nightmare I have suffered almost all my life, or at least since I was about ten years old; it’s also a recurring dream that plagues the few hours I do sleep at the height of my anxiety episodes. It can approach by degrees, perhaps at a professional or social occasion that I’m not entirely comfortable with, where I try to hold back the tide of anxiety for as long as possible and jump on a train home when I’m about to succumb; or it can hit me like a tsunami, where I’m coping one minute and the next I’m dissociating first from my surroundings, then from my peripheral senses, almost from my sense of self altogether: stranded. When I talk about losing control, I’m not talking about frustration that other people won’t bend to my will. I’m literally talking about losing the link between my physical body and my sense of self.

At one point or another this has manifested itself in the form of both claustrophobia and agoraphobia (it’s possible, look it up), as an eating disorder, as compulsions, and not at all. The common factor to all these self-prescribed treatments is the same thing: a misguided belief that activity X equals outcome Y, and I will regain control of all my molecules. But that fear of disintegration still tortures me. If I stand on a bridge I panic that my belongings will jump out of my pockets into the water, or that I’ll fall in even if I’m nowhere near the edge. If I drop something on the floor, I briefly imagine that it will fall into a black hole and be gone forever. If I stand still for long enough, I feel as though I will turn to dust.

This is what I wanted to tell the counsellor, and didn’t. I said a lot of things but I couldn’t articulate this. Six months on, and only now have I got the building blocks of the language I need to describe it to you – even then these words are to actual building blocks what Lego is to bricks and mortar.

It was far from a waste of time though – those two short sessions were enough to start the process of recovery, even if all they did was make me confront and find a way to define the immediate problem. We discussed the importance of running to my mental health, acknowledging that that one very simple treatment has never failed to alleviate my symptoms and working out how to make the most of it. I half expected her to tell me that actually there is no provable link between exercise and good mental health and that it’s all a placebo sold by Runner’s World – but then I thought, what does it matter if it is? As long as it works, and the worst side effects are boring your friends and never having clean hair, then I’ll take a placebo over losing hope that I’ll ever feel human again. It’s either that or knitting.

To anyone reading this who can relate to what I’ve written, or who recognises even a scrap of themselves in the chaotic fragments of my story, I say this: I know how lucky I am to have this resource available, and how stupid I am for not taking advantage of it sooner. Many people don’t have the luxury of a welfare counsellor at work or even know if they come on the NHS. If you have such a resource, use it. Not because a counsellor will fix you like a plaster on a papercut, but because they will start to teach you how to heal yourself. They might sow the seeds of recovery, or show you how to sow the seeds, or they might even start by explaining to you what seeds are.

If you don’t have access to a counsellor directly, be reassured that help is closer than you think. The Mind website is a great source of information on mental health, as are SANE and Rethink. And be reassured that mental ill-health is commoner than you think too, especially in this age of enlightenment. With the privilege of more and more instant access information comes the responsibility to evaluate it all, at an increasingly faster pace and with less and less tolerance for error. It’s like working on a factory assembly line, where the machine churns out parts at the same pace for years and years, and all the line workers have to do is put them together. Suddenly one day the machine doubles in speed and your boss docks your pay for every incorrect assembly. The effort of trying to keep up compounded by the fear of failure is a disaster waiting to happen, and yet we have to treat this situation as if it’s perfectly normal. Eventually, it is normal. But normal still isn’t the same as right.

If me and my molecules have been of any help to you then maybe it’s a step towards us all keeping up with the machine. And if they haven’t, then please know that you’ve been invaluable to me.

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How to love running; or Brigitte’s Beautiful Black Dog

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Hi everyone. Remember me? I used to whinge a lot on the internet and now, now I just whinge a lot to myself instead.

I haven’t really got anything to whinge about. I finally own my own home, a lifelong dream to a working class kid from a nomadic family. Every day I get back from work and I stroke a bit of the pebbledashing, or run my toe along the moss in between the paving stones, to remind myself it’s mine (ours) (mostly Halifax’s).

I have an awesome job. I mean seriously, it’s the sort of job that if children knew it existed they’d probably say they wanted to be that instead of teacher or vet. The team I work with are truly brilliant; humble about both their achievements and my ineptitude, gracious in the face of my daily expletive filled temper tantrums. Most people in my position would not have passed probation; I get to see my name on the credits of cinema releases only a few lines under Sir Ian McKellen and Daniel Radcliffe. It is a bit baffling.

I have a gorgeous husband-to-be-to-be. He is gentle, calm, patient, funny, honest. When I first laid eyes on him I thought he looked just like Billy Corgan and my heart went pop. He’s got a much nicer voice, although he does also have an unexpected penchant for wrestling. He bought me tickets to Metallica for my birthday and made a Spotify playlist for the car even though I know he’s really only ever listened to Enter Sandman. He turns out to be pretty good at crewing too, even though he patently HATES it. We agree on almost all points except raisins. It’s as close as one gets to the definition of perfection.

But I’ve still been a total misery guts this last year. I mean, 2016 sucked, but I’m not Syrian or African American or a refugee – “economic” or otherwise – or living in poverty or living in danger for my political beliefs or living in a country where my gender makes me a second class citizen (mostly) or living in a state of uncertainty about my gender identity or my sexuality and I don’t really have anything in particular to complain about. I think if I did I’d probably be less of a misery guts; you know, I fucking love a fight. What I am living with however, is my beautiful black dog. Brigitte Aphrodite found the way to articulate it and Winston Churchill did too, so I’m stealing it.

Not being someone who functions on less than eight hours of sleep, four or five has become the norm, plagued by either insomnia or anxiety dreams. The dreams themselves are usually pretty banal. I wake up hideously late for work. It’s a week in the future and I haven’t prepared for the build I’m planning. Or something. It might not be a dream. I might just wake up at 5am, panting and sweating, and freaking out. I burst into uncontrollable tears. I haven’t done this thing. What happens if that thing. People will be angry. People will be upset. I’m going to have to tell someone they can’t have what they want. Why is this so frightening? I don’t care about making people happy. It’s just theatre. Worse things happen at sea, or in the White House. I do care about doing a good job though, and the only person that can let me down is me. So here we are.

Aware as I am that this anxiety is irrational, it doesn’t make it easier to confront. It’s not simply that I don’t want to get up in the morning; what I want is to freeze the world as it exists outside my house and keep it in stasis until I’m ready to face it again, without being certain if I ever will be. It’s as if the front door is the barrier on a level crossing and by opening it every day I willingly put myself in the path of high-speed trains, so logic tells me don’t open it, don’t cross the threshold. But I have to, and every day I dance with trains. I’ve even had nightmares about train tracks for fuck’s sake.

I realised, towards the end of 2016, that I was heading in a direction I’ve gone before. The end of that road was similarly miserable, and with size 4 jeans hanging off my bony hips. This time I knew that to take control I needed not to fixate on what I was doing, but what I was deciding. And luckily, I had a very recent memory of something that I decided to do once, that made me happy. For every day in 2015 I ran at least a mile a day. Sometimes in ridiculous circumstances, sometimes the very definition of “junk miles”, but I never suffered injury and recovery was a matter of hours not days. Keeping up my streak became more important than finishing a job, taking a lunch break, getting an extra half hour of sleep. And that time never ever felt wasted.

So, I’ve taken the decision to restart my streak. Andy, reasonably, doesn’t approve of my manias in any form, but I think he understands the implications of the alternative. As I write this I’m over four months in, and the effects are already visible. Physically, I’m more toned and stronger (although still around a half stone overweight). Mentally I am coping better with tiny things, and that’s a small win. I already find that a single mile around the block is enough to shake out tension and anxiety, and make me a more bearable person to live with if not entirely a better one. The routine is teaching me to rediscover the connection between physical and mental health. I do not say “I hate” as much as I used to.

Quite besides the anxiety, for a good year I have been plagued with chronic pain. If I had to point out which part of my body hurt I’m not sure I could. Everything just hurt. Muscles, bones, breathing, thinking. The daily mile is just enough to loosen things up and for the pain to fade. The absence of it tortured me. If I’m describing an addiction, then frankly I’m OK with this kind of addiction. It’s better than codeine or crack or Candy Crush Saga.

What my running addiction has forced me to do is reassess my priorities again. I’m ashamed to say that with or without the daily mile finding time to spend at home remained a low priority; there’s always a reason to stay late at work to finish that one thing and the decision to spend my holiday days doing freelance work is only my own, but 2016 forced me to acknowledge that my runs weren’t pushing Andy down the pecking order, I was. Quitting my daily run streak did not create more time for me to spend at home, it simply removed a reason for me to catch the last direct train home. On top of which, I was grumpy and twitchy for not having had any proper exercise and Andy probably didn’t want me at home in that state anyway.

 

So, he knows that unless I can get it done in my lunch break (still not fucking likely) he’s going to lose me for ten minutes a day. He can spend that ten minutes playing Mass Effect and barely notice I’m gone. I’ll come back refreshed and in less pain, ergo less whingy, ergo less disruptive to his game of Mass Effect. Win win. My wonderful boss is similarly supportive of this new prioritisation strategy – in fact, she has an alarm on her desk that goes off at six to make sure we all go home on time now. She is, I think, also a little sick of grumpy Jaz. By reviewing my priorities, I realised how much the good people around me suffer the effects of my ill temper without losing faith in me, and I owe it to them to show an improvement.

The unexpected side effect is that I’m not just loving that I’m running again, I’m loving running again. I don’t see upholding the streak as a chore at all; I see it as investment in a better me. Like putting a couple of quid in a bank account every day, and getting interest on every deposit. Somehow, twenty miles a week spread over three days seemed not to be giving any returns; spread over seven days it seems to have twice the value. My training pattern has become an important allegory for my ultramarathon strategy, where learning that you can recover from a bonk and resisting the temptation to quit is the single most important bit of training you can do. Even at half eleven at night, when I started work at half six in the morning, spent all day on my feet and feel nauseous from eating only Doritos, I can find the strength to take one step, and if I can take that step I can take another and another and basically that’s all there is to it.

In my mind, to love running you need to love learning, and still have something to learn. It’s got less to do with measurable factors like speed and distance as goals in and of themselves and more with what you need to do to reach them, what you learn about yourself along the way. These are lessons that can be taken into all the areas of your life, wherever you find them. Much like an apprenticeship, you can do the reading part but it still takes a certain amount of real life practice to really learn those lessons and find how to apply them. My apprenticeship has given me the courage to set goals again, something I became afraid to do for fear of failing to reach them. Goal number one is to say “I” and “me” less – yeah, not a great start this – goal number two is to readjust my expectations; goal number three is to complete the Centurion 50 mile Grand Slam. If I can normalise 50 mile trail races I can normalise going over a level crossing every morning. If I can dance with the trains I can do anything.

I can and I will.

 

Featured image credit: https://visitmerksay.wordpress.com/tag/black-dog/ 
Inspiration: Brigitte Aphrodite. Look her up, she’s proper awesome.