Submission #2: Please don’t call me brave

I speak a lot about my mental illness. Anxiety is a tricky one to speak about. It’s not as stigmatised as other mental illnesses, it’s something people can relate to; we’ve all been anxious. The flipside is people don’t understand or know the difference between anxiety the emotion and anxiety the diagnosis. This is (partly) why I talk about it: let’s educate and break some stigma. I also talk about it because it helps me. Putting words to thoughts and feelings, no matter how irrational, is part of the playbook for treating anxiety. Talking about it openly to other people helps me specifically look after my anxiety. In framing my words to help other people try to understand, I further understand myself.

I’ve never had a bad response to talking about mental health, which is an amazing sign. That I can be so vulnerable and the communities I’m in pick me up and bolster me blows me away. It gives me hope that other people will see it and come forward themselves. I don’t want to corner the market on talking about mental illness in Software Testing.

What I also get a lot is superlatives: real, raw, honest. Brave. The last one makes me twitch.

Before I start unpacking I want to make it clear that I am overwhelming grateful for the support I get. I know that it is a compliment and I appreciate it. I even understand it. It’s taken me years to sort out my issues with this word. I’ve talked it out with a few of you who may be reading this (including a very drunken conversation with Andrew Morton before my talk at Testbash). I’m ready to do what I know will help me: put it into words, and shove it out into the open.

When I’m ill, bravery is unfathomable. I can barely deal with the shower, never mind bravery. If we keep saying that getting help and speaking out is brave, what message are we sending?

I know that getting help is a massive deal: navigating doctors who may not understand, therapists that might not gel, medication that might not work, getting time off work or school, never mind the stigma and the shame: it’s exhausting. But if we keep making a big deal of it, it will continue to be a big deal.

We can’t fix the gauntlet of treating mental illnesses entirely (individual psychology and biology means that it’s always going to be throwing treatments at the wall and hoping something sticks), but we can get rid of the shame and stigma that puts people off going as early as they should. I think part of that is making the idea of talking to medical professionals about any medical condition something that is entirely normal to do.

The same goes for talking out. Again, I absolutely agree that telling someone you’re suffering can totally be a shitting bricks moment, but talking about any bad news can be a shitting bricks moment.

Telling my teammate I have a chronic physical condition and a chronic mental condition should be equally serious (or mundane).

This is a bit more dicey as due to stigma and people not knowing how to deal with people sharing mental health struggles you may have to try to deal with unwanted emotions. This is largely the same with more serious physical health conditions, especially the less understood ones (Chronic Fatigue, Fibromyalgia, etc) or cancers which people generally panic about. I’d rather not be called brave for doing either though.

I’m now a trained Mental Health First Aider. I wear a different coloured lanyard at work, signalling loud and clear that I am willing and able to help people who are struggling. I am a person who is safe to go to. We do lots at work to point people to the resources available to them, and we normalise it as much as we can. I also want to try and offer resources for anyone to use. I want us all to use the resources that work for us to keep on top of our own mental health, just like you do with your physical health.

You mental health is a massive part of your physical health (your brain being part of your body and all). If we elevate one part of it to be brave to even discuss, how can we hope to make it easier to treat?

I also am aware that plenty of people with mental health issues think that it is brave to do this stuff. That thriving when mentally ill takes bravery, and I commend that, I do. I’m not here to say people shouldn’t claim that for themselves, only that it doesn’t feel comfortable to me.

Call me strong, fine. Stubborn, fuck yes: the only reason I’m still in testing is I’m too stubborn to let me own brain screw this up for me.

But please don’t call me brave.

How do you become aware of your mental health

This weekend was Testbash Brighton. During the Open Space/Unconference on Saturday, Mike Talks and I did a talk about mental health. We’ve both spoken about mental health in the past and both want to help others overcome the stigma of talking about this stuff.

One person asked the question about how you become aware of your own mental health. This is a fantastic question, and one that rolled about in my mind for the rest of that night (hence me writing this on Sunday morning). It’s unique to everyone, just like everyone’s health is, but I realised, while I have these skills, I’ve never actually written down what I do and why.

First things first: everyone has mental health, just like everyone has physical health. You may feel you don’t have to think about it as you’re mentally healthy, but you still have mental health, and there’s nothing wrong with checking in with your brain every now and then.

Mental and physical health are intrinsically linked. While focusing on one will have an effect on the other, focusing on both as a whole will be more efficient.

You don’t have to be struggling to do this. I learned a lot of this while recovering from the worst of my illness, and as such it may not work for you. I’ve never been mentally ‘healthy’, so i’m writing from the opposite direction, but I’m hoping this is still relevant to the majority of people.

At the very least, I hope this triggers some ideas of what you can do in your own life to help yourself be aware of your mental health.

I truly believe this is important to everyone, regardless of their mental health status.

Make time for yourself

This is step one. You need to make time for your mental health, just like you may make time to learn to cook healthily, or take up a physical activity.

The way I do this is I carve out some time every Sunday, and I bullet journal. I review my last week’s notes, add things that I’ve missed, and write out the next week’s. This gives me a clear picture of what I’ve got on my plate and what time I have.

In my appointments section, I plan in time to do good things. I write when I’m going to the gym or doing yoga, and when I’m at the cinema. I don’t have times but I do have days, just like I would for other appointments. I try my hardest to keep them like I would a doctor’s appointment. They’re not an afterthought, they’re an intrinsic part of my week.

Be aware of self-care

Self care is what it sounds like. Things that you do to look after yourself. There’s the obvious: sleep, sustenance, wash. Those are important and often slip by the wayside when people are struggling. On top of that, there’s more personalised stuff you may already do to look after yourself. If you can be aware of these, you can plan these in your week, you can reach for them when you’re feeling rough.

I paint my nails, I walk, I do yoga. I cook good food for myself and for my loved ones. I bake for my friends. These are the things I try to do regularly, but particularly when I’m feeling sad, or anxious. They’re small, but powerful.

Find similar things in your life. They can be literally anything.

Treat yo’self, my friends.

Words

This one is a tricky one. This may not work for you. Talking/writing doesn’t always work, it can be more effort than it’s worth, but I think it’s valuable enough for enough people to be worth sharing.

Can you talk to people? Is there someone in your life where, if they ask ‘how are you?’ you could reply ‘a bit crap’ if it were true?

If you can make these friends, this support network – even if you’re suffering now – they may be incredibly important in the future.

If you need a professional/more disengaged person, therapy can be useful. There are multiple types – group, CBT, dialectic behavioural therapy, etc. This is a much more personal decision. I only got into therapy because my doctor referred me when I went on meds. I didn’t ask to be referred to therapy, it just happened. I didn’t really have the vocabulary to talk about anxiety as a diagnosis, and the types of therapy I needed.

Luckily my therapist was amazing and I took to CBT really well. This isn’t the case for everyone, so this is something I can only say worked for me, and is an option to explore.

You can self-refer on the NHS in certain areas, which may be an option, and a lot of therapists offer a sliding scale – you pay what you can afford based on your income.

If you can’t talk, maybe blog – or private journal. Writing your thoughts down, forcing yourself to make them coherent and moving muscles to make them black and white can be powerful. You can come to realisations on the page. You never have to show anyone, but if you can feel comfortable doing this, you can find support that way.

Positive psychology

If you’re feeling up to it, cultivate a habit of saying thank you, of paying compliments.

Spreading happiness when you can is a joyous thing in and of itself, and will make you feel better, especially in turbulent times. If you’re finding it difficult to be happy, or even getting up the courage to pay someone a compliment, don’t be hard on yourself, but maybe make a note of it to figure out why. It may be the environment you’re in – maybe it doesn’t feel safe to share this kind of thing. Maybe you’re having a hard time getting up this kind of energy. This may be a sign of an impending physical illness, maybe you’re stressed. Just dig a bit deeper when you feel able to do so. See what you can figure out.

Set boundaries

Say no. Suggest other things (I’m gonna take a moment here to say thanks to Neil for suggesting a quiet tea and a healthy meal yesterday. Proper life saver after cake and free alcohol <3).

This is a balance I’m still learning on a few levels. I’ve got better at saying no to volunteering for things I really really want to help out with but don’t have the time. I’m now learning to set boundaries with talking about this stuff, and being a support for others. I always say that if people want to reach out, please do so. The issue is, I’m not always available. Sometimes I just can’t help others, I need to help myself. I’m learning (slowly) how to tell people that I need a bit before I can come back to them (assuming they’re not panicking/in crisis). It’s hard, because I never want to make people feel unwelcome, but at the same time, I need to enforce boundaries.

Be aware of your body

This is another tricky one. Sometimes your body is a source of mental stress to you. I can’t talk about more intense chronic or acute conditions, as I’m fairly lucky, but I can talk about my main physical issue:

I have issues walking. I love walking, but my ankles and feet cause me some pain, which means I can’t run, I have issues walking on uneven grounds, I’m on prescription strength co-codamol, and will probably be on these for the rest of my life. If you’ve spoken to me for longer than an hour, you’ve probably spoken to me while I was achy or in pain and/or on opiates.

However, I’ve learned to work with my body, to give it the support it needs and make it stronger. I’m aware of my aches and pains and work with them. Because of this, I’ve managed to reduce my pain, and my reliance on painkillers.

I am aware that in the grand scheme of things, this is a very small physical issue, but I wanted to share.

My theory is you can’t work with what you’re not aware of. Be aware of your boundaries, and you can work with them, making efficiencies, and making sure you don’t burn yourself out. Don’t fight against your boundaries without being aware of the consequences and making that choice consciously. You can’t always adhere to your own boundaries, life isn’t that neat, but you can be aware you need to break them, and try to plan for the fallout.

Mindfulness is how I did this. I spend anywhere between 5 and 30 mins just being aware of my body. There are guided meditations on youtube, and I have some resources I can share. I don’t do it everyday, but once you’ve got the habit, you can do it fairly quickly and easily without the guided meditations.

It’s okay to be okay, and it’s okay to not be okay

You might do all this and be okay. That’s brilliant. Keep going on, and keep this in the back of your mind, just in case. Check in regularly.

If you’re not okay, that’s okay. I mean, it’s not, it sucks and it’s a bad time all around, but sometimes you’re not okay, and beating yourself up over it (especially if there’s no ‘reason’ for you to be not okay), is going to make it worse.

The brain is messy, and so sometimes, you’re not going to be okay and you’re not going to know why.

Do your self care, take some time. Try to figure out what triggered it, but do it once you’re feeling a bit better. You might not be resilient enough to keep yourself afloat and get to the root cause. You don’t need to do that, unless you feel it will be helpful.

Further resources

So these are my main tips and keeping on top of your mental health. There are plenty of resources out there that i’ve not tried, but I’m going to list below. All these I’ve heard about or have been recommended to me, but I’ve not felt the need to try them:

https://www.moodscope.com/
https://www.positivity.space/
https://moodgym.anu.edu.au/welcome
https://www.headspace.com/in
http://mentalhealthrecovery.com/wrap-is/

I’d be interested to hear about how you keep in touch with your mental health, and what your selfcare tips are! I’m always looking out for resources and strategies.

I could write about this stuff all day, but I’m going to leave it here. I may do a follow up in the future talking about triggers, drugs, and how to cope with not being okay, but that’s another post.

Take care <3

Gem