There are certain things that are difficult, even impossible to recover in life. A word after it is said. An opportunity after it is missed. The time after it is gone. Trust after it is lost. But it is possible to recover from mental illness and recover your good mental health, but once you recover from mental illness as lots of sufferers do, you have to continue the effort to keep well, to stay recovered.
Lots of us, and this has happened to me a couple of times, find ourselves feeling better for a little bit, like we have turned a corner in the fight against mental illness (I had cannabis-induced psychosis with delusions of a grandiose nature, and serious panic and anxiety issues) and then we think we are on the road to recovery, but then we don’t put in the effort to keep well, we lose the wellness and take backward steps into the depths of mental illness again.
I think at some point, those of us lucky enough to feel ‘recovered’ from their mental health issues, be they serious or light, have learned that they need to keep up the effort to remain on top of things and it is necessary to do simple, small things regularly to stay in the green. I think after a while doing things (like going for a five minute jog while thinking about a nice thing, like a favourite TV programme) to stay recovered, can become second nature.
I got ill in 2001 and I have considered myself recovered since about 2015. I was very unhappy and acutely unwell until about 2006, at which point I began to improve and since then, my journey has been a slow but steady one. It’s a long story.
In 2016 I went on a holiday, another in 2017, I even flew on four plane journey’s to try and get over my fear of flying (which has worked, for the most part). For many years I was unable to leave my hometown, because the panic attacks would kick in. After much encouragement from family, I was able to gradually do more and more, and now in 2017 I am able to go where I like, do what I want in my spare time and I don’t panic about things anymore.
It’s very nice to have recovered. But I know that I need to do things to keep myself recovered. Lots of it is second nature to me now, and it’s usually just small things to keep my brain's happiness and wellness running smoothly. A couple of years ago I had to put in more effort, to put the positive changes into action and keep them guided in the right direction until they began to guide themselves.
I spent time studying other people’s methods, I read books, I went online, I spoke to various mental health professionals pressing them for information on known techniques for keeping well (they were always more than happy to help) and I attended 16 group and individual therapy sessions. Basically I put in a bit of work. I was also lucky. But here I am, as happy as I have ever been in 2017, and I spend a lot of my spare time writing my book about my experiences with mental illness and overseeing my website to support it.
Here are some of the tips I have for moving towards recovery and staying recovered/keeping well.
- Put in a bit of work. That doesn’t mean spend hours each day on it, just be mindful about picking up helpful tips here and there, you will probably be inspired and find some things that work for you.
- Seek help. There is nothing wrong with asking friends and family for advice now and then on what they think might help some of the problems you have or might help maintain your happiness. I am never embarrassed to discuss what is going on in my head, and talking to others about things is something I genuinely enjoy. There are also lots of professional services, therapists can be very useful, and you can usually find some on the NHS for free, though you might have to wait for a month or two to get seen (though maybe not).
- Practise ‘mindfulness’. Google it, read about it on this website and understand what it is. It is a strong technique that people all over the world use and I have personally found it very useful.
- Make time to do things that you enjoy. Seek to make yourself smile. I remember when I was quite unwell, in about 2007, I had hardly anything that made me happy, but one thing that did make me laugh and smile was watching ‘The Simpsons’ on TV. I remembered to watch it when it was on, and I have built up from there. I have a few things that I do to make myself smile in 2017, I enjoy woodworking, I like going to the gym, I’ve recently begun to enjoy travelling on trains and planes so I try to do that, in six weeks I am flying to Italy for a holiday and I am looking forward to it.
- If you don’t have a job because of mental illness (like me for a while) reconsider whether you might be able to do one. There is the option of voluntary work which is usually very stress free in quiet environments and though unpaid it is quite beneficial. Honestly in 2006 I was unable to do work, but it was suggested I might like to try some voluntary work, so I did, for 30 minutes a day at first at a charity shop, and I built up from that. Mental health professionals have always told me how having a job is good for mental health and is also good for maintaining wellness and that wonderful feeling of being recovered.
- Keep your living space tidy. It really does make a difference to me, many people will say ‘Tidy house, tidy mind’ and it just seems to allow a person to think more positively and clearly. I think if there was a case of twins with exactly the same mental health issues, one twin living in a mess and the other in a tidy environment, the twin living in the clean and tidy space would do better than the one living in a mess.
- Reward yourself for making it through tough times or being successful in maintaining good mental health. Get the brand new phone and enjoy it. Buy a nice pair of trainers. Enjoy a £20 bottle of wine now and then. Don’t be silly and spend what you can’t afford of course.
- Train your brain to be positive. This can be a tricky one, and perhaps too difficult for those who are seriously unwell, but it is worth pursuing. A few years ago I decided to challenge the learned negative thinking patterns, if I was invited to go travelling to see family in London or invited out to a restaurant for dinner my initial thought was ‘I have anxiety problems so I will probably not enjoy it.’ I then began saying to myself ‘Anxious thinking is an old thinking style, these days I am much better’. I spent some time trying to solidify positive thinking patterns so that eventually my brain would learn to work with the new positive thinking and forget the old anxious thinking. It was a change that took about a year to start working automatically, but now when I have such invitations, my first thought is not about how anxious I might feel. People might say to me ‘Do you want to go out for lunch’ and I say ‘yes’. Saying ‘no’ is the old thinking at work, and that’s not me anymore.
The most recent challenge I have overcome is driving to London. About three months ago, my brother, who lives in Chiswick; 50 miles away, asked if I could drive up to see him. Because of my learned fears about traffic jams, I said "no".
It occurred to me that I was only saying no because ‘no’ is the word my brain has learned to use in such challenging situations. So I then said, knowing that I am doing so well recently, ‘Ok I’ll do it’, and I did.
I enjoyed it and I have now done this particular car journey four times. Last weekend I even went on the motorway. For many years I had avoided driving long distances, especially motorways, because I really hate traffic jams. I used to panic when there was a queue at the McDonald’s Drive-Thru. It was a form of claustrophobia. I reminded myself when my brother asked me to drive instead of taking the train that these days I am more of a ‘yes man’ and I just said yes. I have now learned that driving is as much fun as the train and a lot easier.
It's fantastic to see how Peter has taken so many positives from his battles with mental ill-health and can describe them so eloquently. All credit to him for recognising what works for him and sharing it with us. Do you have any tips for things that keep you well? Let us know in the comments below.
We have so many self-help strategies in our very own Man-Kit.
You can read more from Peter on his own website at www.petermcdonnellwriter.com which includes extracts from the book he's wrote called 'Viva Mental Health' about his own experiences. You can also follow him on Twitter, where he's @PeterMcDonnell_