Monkey in the middle
I have always seen the status of my mental health, as an image in my mind. If anyone has seen the film ‘12 Monkeys’ with Bruce Willis, and can recall the image on the DVD cover, that’s what I see (Google it if not!). I am the monkey in the middle and there are all the monkeys around the outside of me - except, in my head, their tails are all linked. They are still part of me. When they are all linked I am more than ok; probably manic with the seemingly endless possibilities the world has to offer me. When one monkey tail is unlinked, there is an element of my life that causes me a certain amount of unrest and distress. At the other end of the spectrum, when the links are all broken, we can call this rock bottom. Rock bottom is somewhere I have been and dwelled and breathed and hideously painfully dragged myself from, with the help and guidance of a few special people. It makes me strong and, to a degree, selfish. I wish never to go back there and I will do everything in my power to stop that from happening. At the same time, I am under no illusion that the possibility it might happen again is very real.
I was really interested to see that this year’s campaign for Mental Health Awareness Week, was physical activity and exercise. Readers might have noticed that my previous rantings have a sport and exercise theme. For me, I have used (and probably abused) exercise to help my head. It is generally the thing that makes me feel better – If I am angry, smacking a few hockey balls as hard as I can makes me feel good! If I am confused, running six miles helps me see things more clearly. If my head is bursting at the seams with emotions I just don’t know how to handle, swimming 80 lengths resets me. I haven’t always used exercise like this, I’ve had other crutches that I relied upon, that have been more destructive. I say more, because although the good relationship between physical activity and mental health is evident, it can still end up having a negative impact on some people.
I find it incredibly difficult to separate my monkeys out! Or work out which one is more important, or which one came first. I think that is why I see my mental health like this image, all interconnected. Before my recovery, I used to see my problems as isolated ‘things’ that if I could just fix, I was convinced everything would be solved. In the past, being overweight was something that tortured me. When I say overweight, I’m not talking hugely so but probably a stone in weight more than I should have been – in my head two stone more than what I would have liked to be. All the misgivings in life I came across, I attributed to this ‘fatness’. So, when I relinquished this excess chub, I couldn’t understand why I still felt so miserable. My introduction to, and subsequent improved relationship with, the formerly absent friends of self-esteem and confidence, went a long way in helping me understand. The monkey in the middle needs to be whole, present and positive – it needs to know how to be sad and how to be happy. When you look after the monkey in the middle, instead of punishing it, the other monkeys thrive.
A certain amount of realisation dawned on me with regard to my own experience of mental health problems, which has shaped and formed my monkey theory. Mental health – a very all-encompassing term, grouping a lot of very different problems all together. But actually, are they so different, these mental health problems? I found, that in my own experience, my mental health problems shifted, they changed shape and took on a polymorph form. The diagnosed, depressed hat, never sat very neatly on my head. It roved through anxiety, paranoia, sleep paralysis, disordered eating, panic attacks and mania. It’s only in hindsight that I can see these separate entities as symptoms of the unhappy monkey in the middle.
There is obviously a huge amount of debate around the use of medication to treat mental health problems, you can’t go long without hearing about it, only the other day there was a news report on the increasing use of antidepressants. That’s a whole other blog I guess but I have to say that what they did for me was life-saving. Having fought and fought and refused until forced, they offered me numbness (and a side effect of compulsive yawning). While it’s not great to go around with no emotion whatsoever and care about nothing, the feeling of numbness was a relief, a relief from all of the awful things I was feeling. It was only from that point on that I was able to start moving up from rock bottom. In the same way that all the bad things are interconnected, the healing process was very much the same. I remember very clearly the feeling of complete elation, once I had managed to admit to myself and to my mum (who helped with the dragging up form rock bottom) a particular problem, I then assumed that was it I was mended, everything would get better. When I realised that wasn’t going to happen it was quite a wake-up call, it was only the beginning. You can’t fix one monkey and expect everything to be sunny again.
These days I rely on the physiological effects of exercise, and it really works for me – keeps all my monkeys in check. I learnt an awful lot from my experiences and at quite a young age, I was quite glad to have got the mid-life crisis and nervous breakdown out the way and done at 21 years old. A very good friend once gave me the best bit of advice, telling me I needed to learn to sit with myself, and accept all the emotions and just be with them. I’ve tried really hard to do this, it’s all part of the wholeness. Life is sometimes amazing and indescribably good (Minnie – this needn’t induce mania!), it is sometimes awful and sad (Minnie – it will get better). Somewhere in the middle is where I run, I play hockey, I swim, I cycle, I go spinning, I do yoga. If there’s something that’s not quite connected, I say to myself…
Slowly slowly catchy monkey.