I Rediscovered Swimming

One of the most common pieces of advice with anything mental health or mental illness related is to exercise. And while that’s not bad advice, it’s not necessarily good advice in the practical sense. It’s about as helpful as saying, ‘eat healthy’ or ‘get enough sleep.’ It’s something that has to be tailored to you. Specific types of exercise will help where others may make you feel worse. So you need to find the one for you.

For example, I hate running. I would love to love it but I hate it. I find it at best uncomfortable and at worst painful: it’s like my bones are rattling inside my body. I’ve heard this from others with Autism but I don’t know if it’s specific to that or whether it’s a coincidence. But anyway, running is not the thing for me. Swimming however…

I have always loved to swim. I love the feeling of moving through water and when I was a kid, I loved the silence that comes from being underwater. I would’ve given anything to be able to breathe underwater so that I could stay in that silence. That’s pretty ironic given that I would grow up to develop anxiety that is triggered by a lack of noise and distraction.

I got back into swimming a couple of months ago. At the beginning, my anxiety was so bad that I couldn’t even swim: the lack of stimulation for my brain meant that I just spiralled and my anxiety became completely overwhelming. So me and my Mum would walk and talk, planning the day or talking through whatever thing was on my mind that morning. Eventually my anxiety mutated into a different state and I was able to swim. It’s had such an impact on my life so I really wanted to write about it.

Swimming pools have the potential to be very difficult for me, from a sensory perspective. When it’s busy, the sound bounces around and around, making it one big fog of noise, which makes me very anxious. And the fact that I’m so short sighted I can barely see without my glasses makes that anxiety even worse: I can’t see anything and the sound feels like it’s coming from everywhere and that causes me paralyzing anxiety. It’s how I imagine it would feel to be on a carousel but if the carousel was going at ten times the normal speed. It’s scary. The best times to get in a quiet swim seem to be first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I’ve been sticking to the morning; it makes for a more productive day for me.

Knowing that this is the time that allows for the best swimming experience, I’ve been getting up early and getting to the gym for about seven forty five (sometimes I even get the pool to myself, which is glorious). And knowing that I have to get up that early, I’m going to bed at a sensible time, rather than accidentally staying up until three in the morning. So a routine sort of formed by accident and that has been so good for me. My relationship with sleep has never been so good.

Exercise has always been difficult for me given my historic struggle with energy but also because ‘weight bearing’ exercise often feels very jarring. As I’ve already said, it makes me feel like my bones are rattling inside my body and each impact makes it worse. Sometimes it’s not that bad and I can be distracted by whatever I’m doing but sometimes it can actually be painful. So swimming is perfect. It takes that whole aspect out of the equation and makes exercise actually enjoyable. It reminds me of my arthritic dog: he goes for hydrotherapy and as soon as he’s in the water, chasing tennis balls, he’s like a puppy again. He loves it and I can totally relate.

The best thing about swimming is that it’s something that makes sense and that’s something I really need at the moment. The world feels hard and unfair and this is something that I can control. The more I swim, the stronger I get. I can see the results. I’ve been swimming most days for the last three months and I see my own progress: I’m swimming further; I’m swimming faster; I can see my body changing. It makes sense. That grounds me.

The one thing I do have to be careful of is my tendency to obsess: about the number of laps, getting to the next ten, getting to a hundred… Once it’s in my head that I ‘have’ to get to a particular number, there’s not much I can do to change my own mind and it causes me serious anxiety if I don’t reach the number I’ve ‘decided on.’ So I have to be aware of that. Sometimes I can avoid it by distracting myself or by deciding on exactly how long I’m going to spend in the pool but sometimes I just have to manage it. Sometimes that’s all you can do.

But overall, rediscovering swimming has been one of the major highlights of this year. It’s helped my physical health and my mental health, as well as my day to day life. So I feel very grateful to have found it again.

And since I can’t take my phone into the pool with me, here’s a photo of my dog, enjoying his fortnightly swim.

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So I Wrote A Thing For World Mental Health Day

(Trigger warning for self harm.)

Today is World Mental Health Day.

If I’m honest, I’m not really sure what to say. I’m in the middle of the worst depression I’ve ever experienced and I’m very aware that my perspective, my opinions, my hopes are distorted by that. If this was a video, I might just sit and cry. But this day is important so I’m trying to pull myself together and put something out into the world that is (hopefully) positive (and maybe helpful).

This year’s theme is the mental health of young people. When it comes to things like this, I’ve never felt comfortable talking about anyone’s experience but my own. So that’s what I’m going to do. I hope that’s okay with you guys.

My experience at secondary school was a very mixed one. I spent the first three years dealing with some complicated health problems but by the time I reached Years 10 and 11 (ages fifteen and sixteen for those of you who don’t know the education system in England), I felt really settled. I loved learning, particularly English, Maths, History, Psychology, and Philosophy (real shout out to my teachers in all of those subjects). I got real satisfaction from working hard and that was reflected in my grades. I came out of secondary school with not unimpressive grades, especially when you consider I missed most of the first three years. So I felt pretty good about going into Sixth Form (A Levels/ages seventeen and eighteen).

But that was when it all started to unravel. I really, really struggled. I’d gone from completing the work with ease to barely scraping by. I couldn’t understand it: I was trying so hard and it didn’t seem to make any difference. And I couldn’t see it at the time, but my anxiety was getting worse and worse and what I now know to be depression was creeping in. But I didn’t know it was happening so I just kept pushing forwards. I spoke to a couple of people about the high anxiety I was experiencing but each one told me that anxiety is normal and that was the end of the conversation.

It all came to a head when I failed an exam, something that had never happened before. I’d been told I was all set for an A* and I came out with a U. I was absolutely devastated. I know now that our worth as human beings has nothing to do with grades but I was eighteen years old: I had only ever been valued based on my grades. It’s no one person’s fault but that’s how the education system in this country works. It needs changing.

But back to this little story. I don’t remember much after I opened the envelope and saw that U but I ended up in one of the less used college toilets, self harming repeatedly with a broken paperclip. I don’t know how long I was there (long enough that the automatic lights went off and I was plunged into a very appropriate darkness) but at some point, my friends tracked me down and coaxed me out of the stall. I still remember seeing my reflection: my make up all down my face, my hands shaking, and the scratches barely hidden by my long sleeves. One friend took me to a nearby café, bought me a hot chocolate, and just talked to me. And eventually I told her what I’d done. Her kindness and gentleness was so healing, not for the whole problem but for that very difficult day. I will never forget it and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay it.

After that, I dropped out of that course and clawed my way out with two A Levels and an Extended Project, far less than I and everyone had expected of me. I went straight into a music course but had to drop out two days in because my anxiety was so bad that I just couldn’t cope. I spent a year grappling with the anxiety and depression, trying the first of many antidepressants (so many) and trying to retake some of the exams in the hope that I could improve my A Levels (I didn’t end up opening the results of those until after I finished my degree, three years later, but that’s another story). During that year, I tried desperately to get help from the NHS to no avail: my anxiety was so bad that talking to people I didn’t know was practically impossible and they refused to help me if I wouldn’t talk. Eventually we were forced to go private, something that I’m endlessly, endlessly grateful has been possible. And I only managed to get my diagnoses when my university said they weren’t able to help me if I didn’t have an official diagnosis.

It still upsets me to talk about. I asked and asked and asked for help but no one either seemed able or willing to help me. I would not be as twisted up now had that not been the case. The information and support was not available to me, it wasn’t available to my family, and it wasn’t available or deemed important enough (I’m not sure which is worse) to the medical professionals I saw. That has to change. It is not acceptable.

Now that I’ve told my story, I want to include some other important, relevant stuff.

The first thing is that I want to link you to Hannah Jane Parkinson’s recent article in The Guardian. She makes the very important distinction between mental health and mental illness. And this is where, I think, physical health and mental health are most comparable: your mental health is something you take care of (or don’t) everyday, by eating and sleeping well, exercising, talking through your emotions, and so on. Mental illnesses, similarly to physical illnesses, can be caused by not taking care of your mental health but there can also be genetic factors, environmental factors, and just hard stuff going on in your life.

WAYS TO HELP YOUR MENTAL HEALTH:

  • Talk – Talk through your feelings with someone you trust.
  • Keep a journal – This way you can air your thoughts and feelings in private.
  • Keep in contact with friends – It’s really easy to get busy and fall out of touch but spending time with people you love and feeling connected to other people is so important.
  • Exercise – This doesn’t mean every or any kind of exercise will help. On a personal level some types of exercise can potentially hurt your mental health. You just need to find the one that does help and then it will really help. I always recommend swimming because it’s non-weightbearing and therefore causes less strain on your body when you’re potentially already struggling with physical symptoms, like fatigue.
  • Eat well/drink sensibly – Everything we put into our bodies affects our minds.
  • Be mindful of your commitments – Yes, social interaction can be really helpful but if you’re taking on too much, it will take more from you than it gives you. And then you won’t be able to cope as well with whatever else is thrown at you.
  • Ask for help if you start to feel mentally and emotionally overwhelmed – Fortunately it’s starting to become easier to access support and counselling but even if it’s a struggle, it is a struggle worth going through.
  • Spend time with animals – It’s scientifically proven that being with animals is good for your health!

WAYS TO HELP YOUR MENTAL ILLNESS:

  • Work with a medical professional/therapist that respects and understands what you’re struggling with – Finding one can be the mission of a lifetime but having that presence in your life whose sole purpose is to help you through your struggles is incredible.
  • Medication – If you’re prescribed medication, take it diligently.
  • Try to keep track of your triggers – Knowing what they are doesn’t always prevent them from sending you into a complete spiral but even one spiral avoided is progress.
  • Create a support system – This isn’t something you can necessarily do without help but, over time and with the help of people who care about you, building a circle of trusted people who will support you through whatever it is you’re going through is so special and helpful.
  • Take time off if you need it – This is one I think we all struggle with. It’s a learning curve for a lot of us but it is important and can prevent small problems from becoming big problems.
  • Find a stress reliever – Whether it’s reading, or watching every episode of your favourite TV show, or doing something artsy like watercolouring, taking a break from all the stuff in your head is well worth doing.
  • Create a safe space for yourself – Living with a mental illness is exhausting and so having somewhere where you can just exist without thinking or masking is so important.

And of course, there is overlap between these two lists.

Where we go from here, I’m not sure. The information about mental health and mental illness is spreading and spreading and more and more people are speaking up. Now we need the right systems to support it: doctors, treatment, government officials who advocate for positive change. For now, that’s all I know. For now, I’m just trying to manage one day at a time.

(And a gentle reminder, my debut single, ‘Invisible,’ which I wrote about my experiences with my mental health is available on iTunes and Spotify and all those places and all proceeds go to Young Minds, a charity that supports young people in their mental health.)

Things I’d Tell My Younger Self

Have you seen the book where various different celebrities or famous people write letters to their younger selves? Some of them write pages and pages and some of them write a sentence, maybe two. But the majority of them reveal very little about their lives because they believe that the journey to the major events is as important as those major events. I don’t disagree with that but considering my levels of anxiety, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for my younger self to have a little more certainty. Most of my stresses, then and now, are about the future so this would’ve been the perfect thing to calm younger me. Obviously this is a hypothetical exercise since we haven’t actually invented time travel and therefore don’t have to worry about causing a paradox that dramatically alters human history. We’ve all seen enough sci fi to know that that always ends badly.

  • Your grades are only important for the next step. I know everyone keeps talking about how universities and jobs all look at your GCSE results and maybe in some fields – like medicine or if you wanted to be an astronaut (yes, I know, there’s a little bit of you that really does want to be an astronaut but, spoiler alert, that hasn’t happened yet) – that’s true but for the most part, your GCSEs only matter until you have A Levels and then your A Levels only matter until you’ve got a degree. Hopefully, you get my point. Try not to stress too much. If you get a grade that wasn’t as good as you wanted, feel it, process it, and let it go. Move on to the next thing. It will be okay. There’s always more than one way to get somewhere.
  • Try not to worry about fitting in. I know you wish that you could be like the beautiful girls who all seem to have it so together but it won’t always be like that. The years will pass and you’ll be glad that you have your life and not theirs, not because there’s anything wrong with their lives but because you are where you’re supposed to be. I hope.
  • You will get to Nashville. I know how much you want it. I’m not going to tell you how it happens because that journey is important but I promise you that you’ll get there and it will be worth the wait and the effort. I know it’s stressful and you’re terrified that you’ll never get there but you will. And it will be magical. Take it from someone who knows.
  • Don’t let people treat you badly. You don’t deserve to be treated that way. There will always be people who think it makes them superior (*cough* or a better teacher *cough*) but it doesn’t. I know it’s really emotionally overwhelming but you are strong enough to stand up for yourself. I promise you, you are.
  • It’s okay if you feel like you’re never going to get through something or if you feel like things are never going to get better. People will tell you that you will and you won’t believe them but that’s okay. There are things in life that you can’t know until you’ve experienced them. You can’t take pathways in your brain that you haven’t forged yet. So, when people tell you that time heals everything, try not to despair. They can say that because they have had that experience. It’s okay that you don’t yet. So keep going, keep living, and try to remember that everything you do and everything you experience is shaping you into the person you have the potential to be. And, chances are, a person who knows that time heals and a person who will annoy the shit out of a younger person by saying that time heals.
  • You are so much stronger and can endure so much more than you think you can. I know that that’s not always a blessing but we have to believe it is, you and me. You’re gonna go through the wringer and it will feel really unfair but you’ll get through it. At the very least you’ll make it to twenty-four.
  • There’s a reason you’re feeling the way you are. This is the point I’ve thought about most, about whether or not I should include it, but my gut says that I should. You’re autistic. I know that seems like a weird idea but you’ve always felt like your brain works differently to everyone else’s and this is why. Your only experience of Autism is the boy who was always being told off for being disruptive in primary school and most of the time, it’s really different for girls. You’ll figure it out, you’ll create a relationship with it, and what you learn will help other people.

Ultimately, there’s not much to be gained from wishing you could change the past and while there are things I wish had been different, I don’t think I’d change almost any of the things I had control over: the people, the pursuits, the loves… I’d choose them all over again.