When I was seventeen, I turned down the opportunity to live and work in India for a month. I remember sitting with my Philosophy teacher in a quiet classroom, whilst all the other students were having lunch, and trying to explain to her why I wasn’t going to be able to go on the charity trip she and my English teacher had painstakingly organised. I told her I couldn’t imagine myself ever being able to eat curry, three times a day. I told her I couldn’t imagine myself ever being able to cope with not knowing how many calories were in a cup of chai. I told her I just wasn’t well enough to go. My Philosophy teacher looked at me with sad eyes and said, “I hope one day you will be”.
Her words were kind. But when I was seventeen, I simply couldn’t imagine that one day. The distance between where I was – terrified of losing control, of any disruption in my patterns and routines -, and where I would need to get to in terms of my mental health seemed enormous. It wasn’t just the distance that seemed daunting; it was the terrain, too. The journey looked less like a stroll along a linear path than a trek through a mountain range, hiking up and down steep ridges, facing storms and landslides along the way. From where I was, it looked like too arduous and dangerous a journey to even attempt, no matter the promised reward at the end.
Yet, when I was nineteen, I found myself in the departure lounge of Heathrow airport, about to embark on a flight that would take me via Abu Dhabi to Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of the Indian state of Kerala. I couldn’t quite believe it. Right until the moment when my second flight touched the tarmac and the pilot said, “welcome to Trivandrum International Airport”, I couldn’t believe it. The fear I’d felt as I sat with my Philosophy teacher had passed. In its place was excitement, restlessness, and an appetite for adventure.
A lot had changed in two and a half short years. I hadn’t been wrong about the nature of the journey; it was long, gruelling, and often downright exhausting. There had been many days where rock bottom felt like my permanent resting place. But I had been completely wrong about whether it would all be worth it. At seventeen, I couldn’t imagine what life would be like, unbound by strict rules and unruled by numbers. It was impossible to think up a world where my head could be free enough to embrace the challenges of a totally different culture, language, and cuisine. I had no reference for what that would look and feel like – and thus I had no idea how I would ever cope with such a huge unknown.
When I graduated from university, I felt similarly. Having spent the past sixteen years in full-time education, I had no idea how I would cope in the “real world”. For the first time I was living independently, paying my own bills, making my own choices about what I wanted from my career and how I wanted to live my life. Again, I was terrified. It seemed to me that this was another journey I wasn’t prepared to undertake – and what’s more, this time the fabled reward at the end was fuzzy, uncertain. When I finished university, my reward was a certificate embellished with First Class Honours. Beyond university, I had no idea what I was aiming for, and therefore no idea whether all this hard work would be worth it.
A wise woman once said, “Stepping onto a brand-new path is difficult, but not more difficult than remaining in a situation which is not nurturing to the whole woman”. This is the lesson I am trying to learn. It would have been easy for me to stay exactly where I was, aged seventeen, in a place that felt safe and familiar, that didn’t challenge my need for control. It would have been easy for me not to visit India, or any of the other places I’ve been blessed to be well enough to visit. It would have been easy to stay in education for another year or two, where I understood the expectations on me, where there were grades and certificates – tangible rewards – that marked the end of the journey. But standing still has never brought me growth. As I start this next phase of my life, I am trying to remember that whilst a ship is safe in the harbour, that is not what it is for.
Of course, it’s one thing to talk about the value of change and reflect on how far I’ve come – but what about actually living change? What about the day to day experience of having your life turned upside down and inside out? That’s where the challenges lie. Research suggests that, on average, human beings cope better with huge life events like the death of a loved one, than with everyday stressors like traffic jams and bills. It’s the little things that get to us and wear us down over time. When we face change and challenge, all of the little routines that help us cope can get thrown out of the window – and our resilience to stress, anxiety and depression goes with it. For me, I get more eating disordered thoughts and compulsions, and I can find it hard to do normal things like shop, socialise and focus at work. At the end of the day, no matter how many inspirational quotes I tattoo on my body, I still have to get through the day to day of the process of growth. That process is sometimes overwhelming and often just bloody hard work.
Yet there are things I can do that help me stick at it, even when the payoff is obscured by uncertainty. Resilience in trying times isn’t something we’re all born with; for many of us, it’s a skill that’s actively cultivated, a practice that is nurtured. I see the journey of my recovery as a lesson in resilience. Experiencing a mental health problem has given me insight into my stressors and fears that actually enables me to take better care of myself, and to stand up and face those everyday challenges. I’ve tried to build resilience-supporting practices into my daily routine, so that when a strong wind of life stress and eating disorder bullshit blows my way, I’m not completely bowled over. These practices are my coping mechanisms and have helped me to grow. In case you find yourself in need of a coping mechanism in times of change, here are a few tried and tested ideas that might help:
Journaling – never underestimate the power of the pen. On days when I feel like my head is a mess and I’ll never work it all out, I take up my journal and scribble until the words on the page make sense. And when I really can’t find the words, I draw little stick-person cartoons instead. Now, my journal looks nothing like the #artjournaling page on Tumblr. But it’s not about being an artist or a poet, and in my journal I give myself permission to be imperfect and embrace whatever I need to say, no matter how ugly or incomprehensible
Impromptu lone dance partying – yes, this is as silly and exhilarating as it sounds. Anxiety for me can be an intensely physical experience; my stomach hurts, my muscles ache, my joints scream. Sometimes I just need to LET IT OUT! I shut my door, put on very loud music, and jump and dance and pretend I’m the lead singer in a rock band until I feel something close to calm. It works a treat, every time. You don’t need any kind of dance training to enjoy leaping around the room like a toddler again. Go on – give yourself permission to let go. Here are some banging rock, pop, and R&B playlists to get you started.
Walking – and not the speedy kind. When I go for walks, I’m not aiming to get from A to B in an efficient manner. If I go via X, Y and Z along the way, that’s absolutely fine. Just being outside, embracing gentle movement, listening to music or a podcast (I’m still working up the courage to be completely silent, letting my thoughts unravel uninterrupted) is enough. There are many different ways to walk – who knew this simplest of transportations could be so complex? – but for a quick calming release, mindful walking can be a great practice to build into your week.
Gaming – hear me out. I know we’re always being bombarded with headlines that eschew technology and blame video games in particular for all manner of mental health problems. But a bit of gaming every now and then has real benefits for cognitive processing, and can even help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. In my experience, half an hour of a puzzle-solving game like the Legend of Zelda can be really relaxing. I find it helps focus my busy mind and calm me down. There are so many games out there now that are NOT your classic lad’s “first-person shooter” – try Stardew Valley or Minecraft for a taste of gaming’s potential.
Yoga – a more conventional coping mechanism, yoga is uniquely powerful in focusing the mind and relaxing the body. There’s a reason ancient yogis developed the practice of stretching to prepare themselves for long periods of meditation; the asanas unify the unruly mind and the demanding body, easing you into a state of easy calm. Well, in theory – there are many ways in which yoga can cause more stress than it relieves! For me though, a quiet, regular practice in the comfort of my own home has really helped me feel grounded in hard times. Check out this stress-relief practice from Yoga with Adriene to see if it’s for you.