Tag Archives: challenges

Recovery from mental illness isn’t about staying within your comfort zone

Regarding mental health recovery, I just saw someone on facebook advise one of my friends to “take baby steps”- totally agree with this, but then she said “go at a pace you’re comfortable with” – this, in my humble opinion, is dangerous ground… let me explain.

Recovery from mental illness is going to be painful, it’s like physio, it ain’t gonna work if it doesn’t hurt! No pain, no gain and all that jazz!
The one barrier to recovery, I’ve seen over and over again is being terrified of change and needing things to stay the same.

There’s the old adage – no-one likes change and it’s true.

Yes, being mental ill is horrendous, no-one actually wants to be ill but, wanting to get better and wanting change are two very different things – I don’t think anyone would be ill if getting better was easy, straight forward and didn’t involve making massive painful changes to the way we think, feel and behave.

Unfortunately, the longer someone has been ill, the more comfortable the illness is, which makes change even harder. BUT there’s also the opportunity to use the feelings of frustration to motivate the change.

When recovering from anorexia, comfort, for me included, feeling hungry, saying “no” to food and making decisions based on consuming few calories and burning many. If I’d been told to “go at my pace”, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere at all. I’m not saying I wanted to stay ill but changing even the tinniest thing caused distress I couldn’t manage.

As odd as it sounds, depression can also be comfortable. I had my routines, I had people care for me, my thinking patterns were familiar, I believed the running commentary in my head… I was useless and trying was pointless – it was easier to stay in these patterns.

How could someone not want to break free?! Of course, I wanted to break free but I also didn’t want anything to change.

There’s a fear of failure, and let’s be honest, taking huge leaps increases the chance of failure, then confidence in one’s ability is knocked! So, it’s essential to take baby steps but I always found the tinniest step was uncomfortable.

Once I’d decided I was going to tackle recovery and make it work, I had the right people around me, people who had faith in me, they presented me with challenges they believed I could achieve; every step was difficult, I had to fight my daemons and manage extraordinary levels of anxiety, but if I’d not gone through that, I’d still be at square 1 (or worse).

With all mental illnesses it’s important to make the changes stick, so, unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a day off! If you take your foot off the gas, chances are, steps backwards will occur.

Deciding to take a day off (as enticing as it is!) is dangerous territory!

So, baby steps – yes, even half baby steps, but as soon as you think it’s ok to stay comfortable, chances are, recovery will halt.

I DO NOT want anyone reading this to feel bad about taking steps back or not making progress, this is natural and (dear I say) ‘normal’!

Recovery is exhausting – it’s seriously been the toughest thing I’ve even done, it’s so difficult to make the ‘right’ decisions days after day!
I’m simply pointing out, that in my experience (in myself and supporting people) recovery is about stepping out of your comfort zone, not staying within it.

I hope this will help supporters understand why linear recovery just isn’t possible!

Eating Disorders Awareness Week – Why Wait?

26th February this year is Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Beat (the UK’s leading eating disorders charity) are asking Why Wait? So I thought I’d try and answer!
Beat’s research shows:

“On average, 149 weeks pass before those experiencing eating disorder symptoms seek help. That’s almost three years, 37 months or 1,043 days.”

I’m going to be addressing this primarily from the point the point of view of having recovered from anorexia but some, if not all, of this will apply to other eating disorders too.
People with no experience of eating disorders would be puzzled by the delay in seeking and engaging in treatment but having been deeply entrenched in one for many years, I know recovery from an eating disorder involves a lot of ambivalent feelings.
The most prominent reason for waiting to recover is fear – saying ‘yes’ to treatment means saying ‘yes’ to change, saying ‘yes’ to stepping out of your comfort zone and most feared (when it comes to anorexia) saying ‘yes’ to weight gain.
Denial is also a problem, delusional beliefs about weight, shape, body shape and the extent of the problem lie square in the way of stepping up to getting help. Interestingly, I found, that even when my delusional beliefs were challenged, and I started to see and understand that my beliefs may not be entirely accurate, it was fear, again, that made me hold onto my inaccurate beliefs.
Some people hold on incredibly tightly to their delusional beliefs, no matter how gently or ferociously it’s challenged, there’s no budging it.
Fear and anxiety are helpful emotions – they tell us when something is dangerous, when something should be avoided. I’d be pretty grateful for the fear if I was being chased by a lion, my fear would be accompanied by a rush of adrenaline that would help pump blood to my muscles and help me run faster.
The fear of recovery from an eating disorder is pretty much on this level. Imagine everyday, feeling this fear, it’s not surprising that denial feels like a friend. Every time I was challenged about my weight, my restricted diet or my weight controlling behaviours, this fear and denial kicked in. It felt like I was being chased by a lion I was never going to be able to outrun, the fear was immense but accompanied by feels of hopelessness.
Fear of gaining weight is incredibly powerful – it’s a genuine belief that if you engage with professionals they’ll make you balloon to 100 stone, if you already think you’re overweight, it makes absolutely no sense that you should have to put on more weight…!
So, it’s pretty clear, there are some good reasons not to recover but now I’ll address some reasons why recovery could be a good idea, right now.
When I was struggling, I was advised to step back and look at your life as objectively as I could, as if looking at a friend.
Is there anything you’d change?
Do you want the daily fear to decrease?
Would you like to socialise more?
Do you want to feel less anxious?
Do you want people to stop worrying about you?
Would you like to stop thinking about food all the time?
Would you like to be able to find clothes that fit?
Do you want to go on holiday and just eat what you want?
Would you prefer not to be chained to the bathroom scales?
Do you want to enjoy exercise rather than flog yourself through it?
Would you prefer to be less deceptive and secretive?
Do you want to be free from the number on the weighing scales dictating your mood?
Do you want to try new foods?
Would you prefer to enjoy your food rather than fear it?
Do you want to stop feeling faint?
Do you want to eat your favourite food without fear of a binge?
Do you want to be free from numbers?
Do you want to satisfy your hunger rather than ignore it?
Even if it’s just one of these things, just think about it… Don’t immediately think – “but putting on weight/recovery” won’t do that for me, don’t worry about that right now. Just think, what you’re doing at the moment isn’t working, is it?!
The definition of madness is doing the same thing and expecting a different result.
Perhaps now is the time to try something new?
Recovery gave me all of this, and more!
If you’re watching a loved one battling an eating disorder, whether they’re in denial or fearful, perhaps direct them towards this blog, this maybe the first step for them to start the conversation about recovery.
I’m not offering all the answers, I’m just suggesting, recovery is there for the taking, but it has to be an active choice, the only thing that’s going to work is to find professional help and engage with it.
When in treatment I was advised to read a book called ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’ – I was very angry that I was being advised to read this book and I’m sorry to say I read the blurb and went no further. Every single day I felt fear (fear of going out, fear of being seen, fear of eating, I was afraid of everything) and I got on with my day anyway, I never let anything stop me. I was offended that this therapist didn’t have the first clue that I was ‘doing it anyway’ every single minute of every single day.
I haven’t read the book so I can’t be certain what it was about but I’ll hazard a guess that it would have challenged my way of getting through, the only way I could manage was to deny my fear. Yes, I was fearful of everything but I feared feeling that fear fully as I thought it would halt me in my tracks. I’m someone who pushes through regardless. If I’m worried about something, I don’t put it off, in fact, I’d rather get on with it, soon rather than later, I hate having worry gnawing away at me. I never avoid anything…except my feelings!
Maybe the book would have taught me that fear is ok (something I’ve grown to learn anyway) you don’t have to ignore or deny it, you can accept it, appreciate it, get to know and understand it…and then ‘do it anyway’!
Maybe we could all learn from this – if there’s something we’re fearful of, the fear is telling us to beware but it’s also giving us the energy to fight. As an eating disorder sufferer, when I worked out how to use that energy to fight, that was a big step towards recovery.

I'm taking on a challenge, 1 step at a time!

Some people, more than others, constantly set themselves challenges…there may be no reason for this, other than, “just to see if I can”! For me, it’s been running. I started running as a teenager and have done it ever since. At uni, I was not up late at night partying, but when suffering from insomnia I would go for late-night runs to clear my head or just for something to do! I’ve enjoyed many-a 10k race, tried a multi-terrain type thing that was a giggle and done a couple of half marathons.

For the last few years I’ve found running harder and harder. It’s never easy to go for a run when it’s cold or raining but even in the good weather my body has complained, my hips ached, I’d get sharp pains in my ankles, my head throbbed no matter how hydrated I was and at times it feels as though ever cell in my body was crying to stop. Instead of the exhilaration I used to experience, when returning from a run I’d just feel exhausted. My brain was willing but my body was not. I’ve had breaks, thinking I just needed to rest for a bit but every time I went back to it, I just couldn’t get going.

Since I was a teen I’ve dreamt of running a marathon, would I have to give up on running before I’d realised my dream?
Last year, many of you will know, I was finally diagnosed with fibromyalgia. This is a chronic pain and fatigue disorder that I will need to manage for the rest of my life. Good news, a key part of management is exercise! Bad news, “grading” and “pacing” are not words I’m used to when it comes to running! Connected, or unrelated I’ve also had a lot of other medical problems recently that have put spanners in the works BUT… I have had to learn…

Grading – This involves starting at a very low manageable level of exercise, i.e. 5 minutes of walking per day for a week or 2 (depending on residual fitness). The idea is then to build up very slowly, 1-2 minutes at a time and this is then maintained for a period of time. Gradually other exercises can be added in (of particular value in fibro are things like warm water swimming or yoga).
Pacing – Pacing involves doing the same amount of activity each day, no matter how you’re feeling. The hard bit for me is that when I’m feeling good I want to run and run, which (with fibro) means I’ll pay the price within hours. Even just running a bit further than planned, my joints and muscles ache and the fatigue feel unmanageable. On bad days it’s easy to feel that exercise just isn’t possible but studies have shown that even though symptoms may increase, if appropriate limits are set, it is possible to repeat the performance from the previous day.

I am not someone to give up without a massive fight!
I was referred to a specialist clinic and I went with my long list of questions… at the top? “Will I ever be able to run a marathon?” To be honest, the physiotherapist was not forthcoming with a promising answer but she could see I was enthusiastic, wasn’t going to give up without a fight and she didn’t want to put a dampener on things so she suggested 2 years may be a time scale I could work to.
So, with grading and pacing in mind, October 2018 in my goal.

In Novemeber 2016 my GP referred me to the gym. I started walking for 5 minutes on the treadmill and using the cross trainer and resistance machines to improve my fitness without putting strain on my joints. It was really hard making all the effort to go to the gym just for 10-15 minutes exercise but I had to keep my eyes on the goal. Gradually I added in 2 minutes jogging, increasing it bit by bit, listening to my body and working within my limits. Each increase, my instincts would say “push yourself”, I then have to be strict with myself and make the increase smaller than I wanted – literally 1 minute or 0.2km/h at a time. It’s been really hard.
Pacing has been a tricky one, I’ve hit and broken through “the wall” many times as a relatively fit and healthy individual. I have fallen into the trap of thinking that was all I needed to do with fibro. Unfortunately, after the wall, there’s a 20 inch thick concrete block, then a steep mountain crag, if you do manage to push yourself through all those, there is then a crevasse… So, even when I’ve wanted to do more, if my plan says to repeat the previous day, that is what I do.

So, working carefully, the treadmill and cross trainer have got me to the point of being able to jog for 30 mins. I registered with Parkrun, a free weekly 5k run organised across the world.

Joining the 500 other runners I felt that excitement/nervousness I’d experienced previously at much bigger races and it felt good! I promised my husband I would “plod” round. I was drawn along with the crowd but I was determined not to be driven by striving for a PB or specific time. I must admit when I received my time by email I was quite excited… That is not the point, the point is, I did it, I jogged/ran the whole thing and I really enjoyed it! Yes I ached afterwards but that’s not the end of the world, I did all my usual warming up and cooling down and I can safely say I have not felt any unmanageable adverse affects!
Fibro aside, I’m really hoping none of my other health problems get in the way! My next goals will involve running further but increasing it very slowly. I’ll keep you posted.
I’d love to hear if anyone else has set themselves any goal or challenge, fighting against the odds!