This is mostly a note to my future self for next time I give blood but if you don’t already and are able to do so, please also give blood! You know, to hospitals rather than in a jar as a gift…
It’s the day after and you are pretty damn anxious, also your legs are a bit wobbly. You also forgot to take your meds yesterday you fool which could be a factor but it doesn’t normally bother you. You were tired as hell last night and couldn’t sleep but that could just be normal background insomnia too.
Basically, next time you have given blood come back and read this so you can see if there is a pattern!
This post is the first non-technical one I’ve done in a while and will discuss my mental health issues, the problems therein and how I’m mitigating them. I talk about things like this on Facebook, Twitter and even all-staff emails at work and I thought I’d finally pen something here. This will also cover some of my favourite life hacks I’ve collected over the years, mostly via Lifehacker, which have helped me a great deal.
First off, I’m not a mental health professional and if you think you need help, please please please seek it. This post will cover some of my issues, how I’ve dealt with them and maybe give some tips on helping you deal too but this isn’t a substitute for getting professional help.
Anyone who knows me will know I’ve had problems with sleep for a long time, since I was 11 or so. I chalked this up to puberty kicking in and then that just being how life is. I’ve also had issues with crowds, confidence, imposter syndrome, stress and who knows what else and I always assumed they were lots of different things that weren’t related in any way. I would get angry at the drop of a hat for the most inane of things, I would feel physically overwhelmed when in noisy rooms and generally feel constantly on edge. These weren’t related though, clearly it was just that I’d had a bad week, bad nights sleep, I’d eaten something that hadn’t agreed with me and so on, always able to rationalise it away and though I was trying to deal with each of them it was in isolation.
One day last year I cam across a video from ProjectUROK in which Wil Wheaton talked about his struggles with anxiety and depression. Now a lot of people thought his character in Star Trek TNG was irritating but I was young when I watched it so he was the character I associated with, a geeky kid with lofty goals trying to find his feet, so him talking about these issues I thought I’d give it a watch.
It really did hit me like a ton of bricks, all the little things and everything else swam in to focus. It still took me a few months of reading up on it and talking with friends but I finally went to see a doctor about it in January this year. She asked me a bunch of questions to get a idea of the severity and the results were pretty high. High enough the question was raised, “how the hell have you dealt with this so long?” and I’ve no idea in retrospect. I just kinda got on with life and hoped for the best but things were just getting worse. She referred me for cognitive behavioural therapy and proscribed some medication to dampen the physical symptoms and I was finally on the right track.
The Early Days
What I learned about my condition was that my fight or flight response was almost permanently active, this explains why I couldn’t sleep, either hid from problems or got angry at them and more besides and the medication mitigates that until the therapy kicks in. I didn’t quite have the epiphany that Wil Wheaton mentioned but after a few weeks I woke up one morning feeling odd. I couldn’t quite place it, but something had changed and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what. After a few hours of pondering it occurred to me that the ache in my chest that I’d had for years had gone. I’d always chalked it up to a symptom of asthma but apparently not!
At the same time as this was happening my work health care added mental health cover so rather than tying up NHS resources I thought I’d take advantage of our health plan. Over the six months or so of sessions we talked about all sorts of things but mostly it taught me coping mechanisms on how to get out of the vicious mental loops I find it so easy to get in to.
Over time, things improved a great deal but I was still finding it really hard to maintain momentum and even get up on time still.
I’ve spoken about The Chain on here in the past and last time it didn’t really work for me, no idea what it was but something knocked me off my stride and I gave up on it. I came across this article that says that before building up to big changes make little ones so I thought I’d combine the two. I set myself the first of my little rules;
Have breakfast and watch some TV before work.
The key thing with this one was the TV bit as it forced me to get up early enough to be able to spare 22 minutes to watch an episode of 3rd Rock From the Sun, I figured starting a day with comedy was a good call. It worked in the week and I was getting up more regularly for work and not really feeling like I was sleeping better. After a month or so I thought I’d have another look at this one rule and break it down a little;
Get up and shower straight away
Watch something or read the blogs I follow
I also combined this with the chain to track how well I was doing and thought I’d add some evening rules too to allow me to get more done in the evening rather than just slump on the sofa.
Tidy for 25 minutes
Cook a meal and prep lunch for work the next day
Make or learn something for 25 minutes
The biggest change was getting up and showering straight away, I’m waking up a lot earlier now and actually have a sleep pattern. When I mentioned this on Facebook a friend shared a link to info on something called sleep inertia and it seems that the shower really speeds up recovery from sleep. If you are wondering why 25 minutes then see my earlier post on the Pomodoro timer I made. It’s also a mental hack as “It’s only 25 minutes, not even half an hour” seems easier to swallow.
After 21 days of this regime my blackboard looks as follows;
I missed one evening of making meals early on and figured today I’d earned a lie in. My flat is much tidier, I’m sleeping much better, I’m now known at work for being optimistic rather than cynical and I’m generally happier. I still have bad days but the list helps, my therapist once told me “you don’t have to feel like doing something to do something” and it’s all too true.
The days where I don’t feel like tidying or tinkering I do so anyway and when I wake up the next morning or get home from work to a tidy flat it really helps break the cycle.
The Next Steps
I figured that if it takes 21 days to make or break a habit then reviewing the rules every 21 days would make sense too so today I’ve taken stock and tweaked them as follows;
Not much of a change but that’s the point I guess, using this as a base for bigger changes was always the plan so making another small change makes sense and hopefully will help get my weight back down and keep it down. I’ve been using Bullet Journal on and off for years too and it really does help keep track of random tasks so making me update it more often can only be a good thing. I’m also planning on taking notes of things I’d achieved each day too as a reminder I’m still getting shit done.
Oh, and last month I got to say thank you to Wil Wheaton in person. They say never meet your heroes but I thanked him for sharing his story and told him it was the reason I got help. He turned to me and said “You’re very welcome. Depression lies” and gave me a reassuring smile. It was brief but glad I had the chance and he really does seem a gent.
A massive thank you to all my friends, family and colleagues who’ve supported me through all this and put up with me on the bad days before I knew what was going on. The epiphany that was the video got me started but you all kept me going.
So, that’s the story so far and I expect I’ll post updates to my rules as and when they happen. Until then I hope you all stay well or get the help you need. Oh, and I know I ended up with seven rules but I’m a Computer Scientist so off-by-one errors are kinda my domain…
The next post should cover the multi-room audio system I’m building so normal service should resume shortly!