Productivity: Elusive and Blissful

Regaining a sense of productivity can be one of the hardest aspects of recovering from mental illness. When we are physically sick understanding and patience are more widely available. If a physical illness is long term then it can be very emotional, frustrating and life changing for all involved. But one of the biggest challenges with mental illness is that it is invisible.

The Effect of Mental Illness on Work and Everyday Life

When we have good relationships with friends, family and colleagues they can pick up on even small changes in our behaviour, body-language or voice that can indicate that something is not as it usually is. But everyone has their own struggles and if the earliest indications are missed then the individual may have already distanced themselves to the extent that there is not that closeness with which to be aware of the more drastic developments with ill-health and it becomes invisible.

Some individuals, such as myself, may have to get sick leave from work when the illness prevents them from successfully completing assignments, interacting with people, or even getting out of bed in the morning. Severe mental illness can inhibit individuals from effectively completing day to day tasks such as washing up, laundry and even aspects of personal hygiene.

The hopeful outcome is that even those of us who hit rock bottom will find the strength and light within us, assisted or unassisted by medication, professionals or loved ones, to regain full health, awareness and maybe eventually return to work. Sadly, this is not the case for all but I am one of the lucky ones and can only write from my own experiences.

Return to Work

I still have wobbles about work. I have just completed my annual review and it was tough for someone so self-critical and pessimistic to focus on successes and find things to be ‘proud’ of. When I returned to work I didn’t feel ready at all. I felt drained and groggy as if I had crawled out from hibernation and it took a lot for me to be able to face my colleagues again. I wasn’t confident about performing stories and still didn’t even like going beyond the front door. There are still days when I can’t face leaving the house and catching the train into the city feels overwhelming even though it a direct line.

It is difficult when you are effectively at war with yourself every time you try to accomplish something. Everyone has self-doubt and negativity from time to time and lots of jobs are very stressful these days. But when you have mental illness these periods are not temporary. The voice of self-loathing is constantly bullying you from within your own brain. You spend twice as much time worrying as actually doing and each worry makes the task seem so much bigger. Then there’s the agonising you do once the task is completed. Worrying about whether it was good enough and beating yourself up for not having done it sooner or quicker and all the while preventing yourself from moving on to the next task.

Have Patience and Be Kind to Yourself

We are our harshest critics. We will tell others that they should slow down, take a break, stop being so hard on themselves, but we are (for the most part) useless at taking this advice ourselves. I volunteered for a charity that supported those with mental illness. I sat at the end of a phone listening to others tell me about their experiences and I would see all the warning signs. It was part of my job to spot the triggers and ask the difficult question: Are you feeling suicidal? To try and help others give words to how they were feeling. 

I missed all the signs for myself. I told myself that what I was feeling wasn’t real, it was all in my head, that I was attention seeking, pathetic, weak. But I have to be patient with myself. I have to give myself permission to slow down, to take a break, to heal.

I am not the same as I was before I was suicidal. I don’t have as much energy, my memory isn’t as good and I can’t take on as much as I could before. This makes me feel like I am not achieving as much, that I am not productive.

Loss of Perspective and Regaining Productivity

As a result, I seem to have lost all perspective on time. I am no longer assigning reasonable, achievable timescales to the tasks I am hoping to complete. If the goal is designed from the outset to be unachievable, then the feeling of failure will creep in before you have even begun and snuff out all your motivation. This is how productivity can become elusive.

But when it happens, productivity can be blissful. The same way that unachievable goals, which are only that way because they have not been fully planned out, accurately time scaled or suitably prepared for, can lead to a tailspin of negativity, anxiety and depression; the completion of even the smallest, simplest task, can buoy up, motivate and brighten.

Moving Forward

There is a lot of advice out there on how to be productive. There’s a lot of stipulation about what time to get up in the morning, when to go to bed, how much to drink, what you should eat; endless lists on how to be successful. Yet, everyone is different. I feel most productive when I get up early because I work best during daylight hours, but my husband works best later at night because it is quiet and there are less disturbances from emails and the like.

Does it matter? There is so much emphasis on changing everything about your routine, your diet, your exercise pattern to become better, more, to be successful. If you are recovering from any form of mental illness that is immediately going to be overwhelming and you will have your head under the covers again waiting for it to go away. I know because I did just that.

So don’t change. At least, not all at once. Just reach out your arm to the nearest writing materials you have. You’re phone is probably in arms reach so type a note or a text to yourself and list 5 things that you can do that day that will be an achievement. Whether it is getting dressed, brushing your teeth, having a shower, it doesn’t matter. Being able to check, cross or delete things off of that list will make you feel stronger, it will let you be able to move on to the next thing. Start as small and as simple as you need to. Then build it up.

 

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Bumps in the Marital Road

Last Saturday was my first Saturday off in six months. With my husband working 9 to 5 or sometimes longer on his PhD project at the university and the emphasis placed to spend Sundays at church and religious activities, when I work weekends it really limits the quality time we get to spend together.

It has been showing.

We got married when we were both students and our schedules were all over the place for the first year of our life together. We agreed that, as it was Samuel’s Masters year and because he worked seasonally at the supermarket which would have meant missing our first Christmas as a married couple, he would stop working. I continued to work as I had been at my storytelling job for 4 years already, it was relevant to my degree and it gave me continuity and routine which helped the with severe mental illness I was experiencing at the time. Before the harassment started, my place of work was were I went for grounding. The office is underground so there was no signal and it gave me an excuse not to be contactable. To not respond when I was feeling overwhelmed. When I couldn’t cope. My place of work means an unusual amount to me.

Summer 2017 was a very intense time for our marriage. We’d been married for a year and were in a good place but we were done living in a one bedroom flat in the middle of the city. It was advertised as one bed, but really should have been one person, as we couldn’t both be in the kitchen at the same time if we wanted to have a bin as well. So we started looking at houses. We didn’t imagine that we would actually be able to buy, it’s famed that no one our age can. But we wanted to daydream at the very least.

We got lucky.

But we were £3,000 short of the deposit. So I started working 3 jobs. It was crazy. One of them was my long term storytelling job, one was at a concert hall and the other was in a museum. It was meant to be a straightforward visitor service job, but morphed into tour guiding and helping arrange a summer activities program which provided really great unexpected work experience. So it was a really beneficial, as well as crazy, time. I decided/insisted that as I was working so much (most of it very relevant to what I was hoping to do following graduation) and Samuel was likely to be starting a PhD three months later, that he shouldn’t work. He needed a break, someone needed to keep on top of the housework, and if we throw a fourth schedule into the mix, we just wouldn’t have seen each other. As it was we saw each other first thing in the morning and for about half an hour before we went to sleep.

We made it.

We bought a house. Now the situation is reversed. I am on reduced hours, just ticking over at my storytelling job, which I still love but is no longer my safe place. As a physicist, Samuel’s PhD is funded, so whilst he is technically studying, it is fundamentally a job. He works very hard and is extremely good at what he does. Our subject areas compliment each other very well. I find it highly appropriate that both our birthdays are in January, the month named after the Roman god Janus. Janus was depicted with two heads, because he looked forward and backwards. As an archaeologist I look back to the very beginnings of humans as a species and Samuel, being an experimental physicist working on technology, is looking forward. It also gives me confidence about at least one aspect of us potentially becoming parents – we have homework covered. Our other running joke is that Samuel does the numbers and I deal with words. Sorted.

Our issue is that because of all the studying, the crazy summer jobs and the recent house move, we have never really got into an established routine. We are beginning to get there now but we still haven’t quite found our rhythm. As we are approaching our second anniversary, and with the addition of our dear dog, this is starting to apply a little bit of friction. As far as I am aware this is healthy and usual in all relationships let alone marriage. We are definitely benefiting from no longer being in that one bedroom flat, as we can now be more than 5 meters apart and means I can be less distracting whilst Samuel is working and I can read my book quietly whilst Samuel watches television (Samuel is severely dyslexic so you wont find us reading together).

As a result of not having a stable, consistent rhythm to our daily routines, we have become very snappy. We haven’t fought or had slanging matches but as I say there has been some friction. I think that’s the right term. No one is perfect, everyone makes mistakes and get irritated from time to time. One of my biggest flaws is my temper, so I definitely get irritated more than is reasonable. I am very grateful not only for my husband’s patience and ability to forgive when I fly off the handle but for our ability to communicate with each other. As we got married so quickly, I don’t think that we would have managed if we weren’t able to talk about anything and everything. As I always say, we don’t necessarily recommend getting married three months after meeting, but it is working for us. We are truly very happy together. The importance of communication is made evident in every sit-com, film production and in most real life scenarios. Whole plots of plays, books, tragedies and comedies begin with a miscommunication, failure to communicate or a double meaning.

Having last Saturday off was amazing for us. Even though I was unwell with the flu, headlining fever, dizziness and nausea (how have I managed to come down with this twice this year? There have only been two months thus far?!) so we didn’t go anywhere or do very much, yet still it gave us some space to just be us. I was actually supposed to be off volunteering in central Scotland so being ill was perhaps a blessing in disguise? I described our morning in yesterday’s post. It was bliss. What really made the difference was that we didn’t have to be anywhere. We had to take our dog for a walk but other than that we had the day to ourselves. Usually one or other of us is rushing around in the morning and heading out to work. On Saturday, we could just be together and enjoy each others company.

This weekend was a big lesson for me in the importance of making time for each other. Compromise and communication are as important as everyone says they are in marriage or any other relationship. Let’s face it they are important principles in friendship as well. But the concept of date night is something that I will certainly be paying more attention to from here on.

Morning has Broken

It is so rare for my husband and I to have a day off together. He works all week long in the lab at the university completing his PhD and for the past 6 months I have worked every weekend. The only time off we have had together has been when we are visiting family and whilst we are all very close, its not exactly quality couple time. But recently my timetable changed so I am now only working alternate Saturdays. We have a day off that coincides.

I mentioned how one of my reasons for starting a blog was to have a space for reflection that could document significant events and feelings but was not as personal or emotional as a diary or journal. But I did start writing in a jotter on our last day off and I haven’t felt so contented for so long. I have been happy during the last few years. I’ve not been depressed, suicidal and miserable the whole way through but the general upward trend in positive outlook has been quite recent. I really wanted to document this moment so I thought I would share it… online… which still doesn’t feel completely usual yet… despite how much I seem to be doing it now…

Typically, I have flu to mark the occasion of our shared day off, but even feeling disgusting can’t spoil this morning. 

I always wake up earlier than my husband. I have never encountered someone worse at mornings than Samuel. After giving him a snuggle, I got up to let the dog out into the garden and then we headed back upstairs. Samuel had his head under the covers so I was able to open the bedroom curtains without the sunlight disturbing him.

My intention was to read, but looking out of windows and daydreaming has always been one of my favourite past times and so I thought I would write down what I was feeling in that moment.

As it is early in the morning on a weekend there are very few cars or people about. The air is still, no breeze, no movement. Despite the spring sunshine it is still bitterly cold outside.

This is rather typical of Scotland. There is a week of extra daylight, sunshine, flowers and a slight temperature rise commonly followed by bad weather and snow…

The birds are chirruping to one another and as the new spring leaves are only just starting to bud, I can see them hopping about in the branches of the hedge below the window. It feels like the first time this year that it has been this light this early in the morning, but it might well be the first time that I have been still enough to notice. 

Our bedroom window is south-facing and I can watch the sunlight get brighter as I sit and write in my notebook this morning. 

A few doors down our neighbour has a holly tree shaped into a sphere and it means I can always glimpse life growing outside our window. 

Even though I am full of flu, I know that the air will smell of damp earth, sweetened by the sugar of fresh spring grass. It is the smell that, for the last few days, my dog has carried into the house on her paws. 

My husband is lying beside me,  not quite awake, nor fully asleep. Although strictly speaking she shouldn’t be up here, the dog has crept her way onto the bed and is nestled under his outstretched arm. She’s snoring softly and twitching in her sleep as she dreams. 

It’s the mornings we dreamt of when we lived in our pokey city flat. The double bed took up almost the entire bedroom (we couldn’t fully open the wardrobe doors) and only one person at a time could fit in the kitchen. Our bathroom was so small that my brother-in-law could only just get through the door.

But here we are. 

In our new home, with the sounds of the countryside all around us. With the sun warming a new season and shining on all the new life it brings with it. This lie in is renewal for us as well, as a family. It’s a time when as individuals we have the chance to refresh, recharge and reconnect with each other. On Sundays we have the chance from spiritual renewal at church. The week can be very fraught. We haven’t spent much quality time together recently, but today is new and fresh. 

And So It Begins…

Today, I had a breakthrough. The best thing was that I really wasn’t expecting it and that made me appreciate it more.

I might have been a little overzealous in my post New Year – New Month. At the end of that post I said that my husband and I had transitioned to a vegan diet and were trying to conceive. This is true, but I may have been a little hasty. As I mentioned yesterday, my husband and I had talked and talked about it and finally made a decision (about veganism and babies) and then seemed to get caught up and going sideways rather than forwards.

Just before Christmas, which seems a lot longer than just two months ago (it’s hard to believe it was before I had started blogging!) I became a vegetarian. I’m not sure exactly what prompted the change, or why I hadn’t made it earlier! I think it must have been adopting our dog Lassie that triggered the transition which really had been a long time coming. I knew how unpleasant the meat industry is, even on free range farms, and at the end of the day eating meat means death for the animals we eat.  But I had just been accepting this as inevitable and I am not sure why. I guess I simply hadn’t given it any serious thought.

I really have no excuses. Whilst I knew very little of veganism until I met my brother and sister-in-law, I was raised by vegetarian parents. I myself however did not grow up strictly vegetarian. My mother was (and still is) quite anaemic and as I was a child who hated green vegetables, she thought that a monthly intake of red meat was the way to go. I never actually enjoyed eating it, but it became habit and then convenience. As a student cooking mince was simple and the majority of to-go pasta, salad and sandwich options were either chicken or cheese (which I disliked and was quite violently allergic to growing up). But it was just habit as I prefer vegetarian meals, finding them a lot more colourful and flavoursome than the alternatives containing meat and since becoming vegan I haven’t missed them at all. In fact, I found no longer eating meat and dairy products easier than ceasing to consume alcohol when I became a Mormon.

There’s one other reason I think it took me a while to embrace being vegetarian and that was the false association I made with the diet and one particular story my mother shared of when she was expecting me. One day during her pregnancy, two of her teeth disintegrated. My mother has always hated milk and therefore doesn’t drink it, however she eats a fair bit of cheese so it was not, as I had assumed, that she had cut herself off from calcium. That being said, it is a useful reminder of what can happen if you adopt a diet (of any kind) and fail to keep an eye on nutrition.

As soon as I had made the decision to become vegetarian, veganism seemed a forgone conclusion. Especially as one of the principle reasons for making the transition was the information which I had recently learnt about the environmental impact of pastoral agriculture. Perhaps it should have been obvious but it wasn’t until recently that I realised the huge amount of greenhouse gasses, land exploitation and food waste that this kind of farming produces (Jenna Bardroff, One Green Planet, 2014).

My immediate thought once I had made my decision was to research, research, research. I knew that in the near future (we are still pre-New Year and blog at this time) my husband and I would be trying to have children and I wanted to ensure that I had made the transition to vegan before that happened, because whilst a vegan diet contains all the nutrition for a very healthy pregnancy, I did expect there to be bumps and pitfalls along the way. I didn’t want to add the strain of growing a person to my body as it adjusted (for the better) to this new diet and I didn’t want any slips to have an impact on that growing person.

I also anticipated that my husband’s commitment to eating meat would pose a huge challenge, especially as he does the majority of the cooking in our household. When we got married this seemed to be a very practical arrangement. At the time of our marriage I worked more and was studying at the same time and he was more passionate about food. I can cook but I don’t get excited about it and it shows in my food. Samuel’s food on the other hand is fantastic. But now I was hoping that he would cut out a lot of his key ingredients when he was cooking at home. I very much consider that what he eats elsewhere is entirely up to him. To try and ease us both into the changes I was suddenly so enthusiastic about, I signed us up to Veganuary.

There was a considerable amount of groaning. Mainly because Samuel really struggles with change. The whole way through he has actually been very enthusiastic, but every time a new ingredient got used up and removed, he would almost panic. This is how anxiety manifests in my husband. It is very different to me. I enjoy change, experimenting and mixing things up, but Samuel can get very concerned even if I suggest changing the orientation of the furniture.

Flash-forward to the end of January. I had just got Samuel on board with plant-based milks (we like coconut and soya, almond is still something we are working on) but was struggling to get him to consider plant-based butter alternatives or cutting out meat long-term. I had joined a couple of vegan pregnancy forums to learn as much as possible about diet and the additional nutritional cares of expectant vegans. One day a number of films such as Cowspiracy, Forks Over Knives and What The Health were being discussed in these groups. I fancied watching them and my husband and I quite often watch something in the evening to relax so I suggested one of these. I really didn’t expect much.

I was in for a huge surprise. I was watching his face throughout the film and saw him react when it referenced the accumulation and concentration of dioxins throughout a diet that is based on meat and dairy and the negative health effects they can have, especially for unborn children. I found his reaction particularly touching and it was clear that he had suddenly made the connection between food and family. When the documentary had finished, he turned to me and said OK.

I was aware that there was a possibility that it might just have been a shock effect. He was bombarded with facts and images and he reacted the way a lot of people do. After writing The Jungle to try and highlight the plight of workers in the United States meat industry in the early Twentieth Century, Upton Sinclair said: ‘I aimed for the Public’s heart, And… hit it in the stomach’. I was wondering which of these What The Health had hit.

It not only hit, but it stuck. So feeling very optimistic at the start of February I struck out and said we were going vegan. But we are both very anti-waste so it was never going to be an overnight transition. We had a pat of butter, ice cream, egg noodles, egg pasta, gravy cubes and jars of sauce to use up. We gave the meat we had in the freezer to friends and relatives but Samuel did seem to be dragging his heels a bit. I wanted to give away as much as possible and start over. Samuel needed time to transition. I had been committed to becoming vegan for almost two months, he had only just made the decision.

Today though, I went through the cupboards to see what we had left to use up and found a few lasagne sheets and one final jar of sauce. So, finally, our transition is complete and so is one of the circular thoughts that I was getting so concerned about yesterday. There are others, but the process of preparing to be expectant parents has definitely begun.