Fancy a journey through the valley of crippling self doubt?

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As an ex-journalist and anxiety sufferer, I’ve often found writing a serious article feels like standing at the foot of a giant mountain while a gaggle of angry, flesh-eating badgers snap at my heels. Any notes/plans/article structures I produce can resemble a 36-car pile-up on the M25.

Recently a good friend of mine pointed me in the direction of someone who feels the same way – although probably with less disturbing badger-related angst. Science writer Ed Yong charts his own agonizing journey through the writing process below, with enjoyment on the vertical axis and time running along the horizontal.

If you’re a writer, and anywhere as neurotic as myself, you’ll relate to this anguish-riddled journey like Homer Simpson does to doughnuts.

My favourite commentary on this diagram comes from journalist Maggie Koerth-Baker who suggests that while it’s very close to reality, she would make one amendment – plot the graph as a never ending ring; and between edits to last story and the finding of next story, insert ‘Valley of Crippling Self Doubt’.

God knows what happens to those foolish enough to attempt writing a novel…

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Chronic fatigue or lazy-itis?

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Having conquered an entire four lengths of the swimming pool (followed by a lengthy wallow in the jacuzzi), my doctor now wants me to try lifting some light weights to build up muscle density. She said I can even start at home with canned goods.

Four years ago last month I ran the London marathon. Twenty-six-point-two miles of sweat, back ache, wild cheering crowds, being overtaken by obscenely fit pensioners and the occasional camel – it was one of the greatest days of my life. Today, I risk ending my days trapped underneath a pile of baked bean tins. A lot has changed.

Has my attitude towards exercise taken a dramatic turn over the last four years? Have I suddenly become terminally lazy? Survived a terrible car accident and lost the use of my limbs? None of the above. Relentless fatigue simply arrived in my life after a period of battling depression and anxiety. I started needing a nap just to get through the afternoon in one piece, my daily threshold for physical exertion began to comprise a simple walk to the corner shop and, at it’s worst, I was bedridden and seething with bodily aches and pains. All for no apparent reason.

And that’s the biggest problem for those suffering through the phenomenon GPs are labelling TATT (Tired All The Time) when the blood tests come back clear. Call it chronic fatigue syndrome, ME, hypoglycaemia, systemic candida, burnout, breakdown…whatever you want – most people that feel exhausted all the time for no logical reason simply don’t get a clear answer. And in the absence of a scientifically rooted conclusion, the chronically tired are often just shipped off for psychiatric treatment. If in doubt, it must be all in the head.

And because there’s such a vast grey area circling my condition, the demons of self doubt are never too far away. I’ve often wondered if the problem really is ‘just in my head’? Maybe all those judgey and intolerant people on the outside are right – I’m just lazy.

However a vast proportion of the population that wakes up exhausted after a full night’s sleep every day says otherwise. It’s estimated that around 250,000 people currently live with chronic fatigue syndrome in the UK, and countless others are struggling with persistent, unexplained tiredness and exhaustion.

There are a whole host of possibilities for what’s causing the body to struggle – vitamin and mineral deficiencies, digestive problems, food allergies, inflammation, infection, trauma – but the problems are invariably subtle, chronic and only identifiable on a trial and error basis. Some complicated combination of factors has run the body down over a long period of time – and while chronic exhaustion isn’t necessarily life threatening, it’s certainly life limiting.

I’ve done a hell of a lot of reading over the last year or so, and self education has been key for my burgeoning recovery. The internet is a great starting point for self-help literature, but beware articles written by those that think you’ll spontaneously combust if you eat a non organic grain of rice. It seems there’s a growing population of experts out that that have identified the source of all worldly problems – and it is gluten.

I’m hopeful that in the future the medical profession will be better informed about mystery fatigue ailments. It has to be – unexplained tiredness seems to be mushrooming in modern society. After all, what sort of future can our children look forward to if instead of working together to create a better world, we’re all having a snooze? Until then it’s up to those with tangible experience of chronic weariness – us – to talk and write about our experiences and better educate the wider public. After a nap.

 

 

Teach mental health in schools

 

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I’m normally more than a little suspicious when it comes to the merits of online petitions. Whether the aim is shaming tax-dodging corporates, eliciting an apology from a sexist sports outlet or saving the lesser spotted aardvark, these things literally clog my social media feeds – generally being shared by the same calibre of genius that believes ‘liking’ a photo of a well under construction in the Sudan is tantamount to helping erase African drought.

However, yesterday, for once, a cry for online signatures caught my attention for all the right reasons, and I tagged my name onto the end of this particular list because I genuinely believe there’s a frog’s chance in hell of a positive change actually being implemented.

With the huge proliferation of anxiety and depression among children and young people in recent years, I’m flabbergasted that school kids still don’t receive any kind of teaching on mental health – which is why Chris Lambert’s petition to our government to Teach Mental Health in Schools really resonates. Highlighting a glaringly obvious hole in the national curriculum, the petition questions why mental health education still isn’t a core part of the classroom experience – in the way that safe sex, drugs and alcohol education is – and urges the government to take action on equipping young people with the tools they desperately need to understand their own mental health.

Today’s youth receive constant messages from the likes of Michael Gove that they’re not working hard enough and need to be more ambitious to succeed in later life, but absolutely no guidance on how to deal with the inevitable stress that comes with all this academic pressure, or how to recognise when everyday strains have morphed into mental illness. If I hadn’t been so utterly clueless about how to safeguard my mental wellbeing as I entered my twenties, I truly believe I might not have travelled quite so far down the clinical depression road before I realised I needed help. Nowadays school children seem to be under even more pressure than I was as a teenager – surely we owe them more help in navigating the murky waters of mental illness that so many are falling into.

The full petition reads:

“Sex, drugs and alcohol education is taught in schools and I call on you to put in place, guidance or a framework into the national curriculum for Mental Health to be taught in schools. Mental Health issues will statistically affect a number of children in every classroom and to give them a knowledge of these matters can only be beneficial to them, as well as to people who already suffer Mental health issues as stigma and discrimination towards the subject can be drastically lowered within a generation.”

Too bloody right. If you feel the same way you can put your name on the dotted line here.