It seems funny that after all I have achieved I come back to old problems, realising that my approach once again needs to adapt and evolve as my life changes. A realisation that the black dog has been beginning to rear its head a little too much for comfort. Interestingly, the answers don’t seem to lie with big complicated answers, but simple things and hopefully playing to some of the more positive learning I have picked up and applied over the last decade.
There can be no doubt that myself like many other addicts I have chosen busyholism instead of arguably more destructive choices, in my case alcohol. Something that brought its own problems and impacted my mental health considerably, to the point of the blackest of thoughts. I chose to throw myself into my work, gaining purpose and direction through my youth work and the founding of BCT. Having so much to do every day meant that the darker thoughts simply didn’t have time to take root. But over the last couple of years I have begun to push myself to places that even for me are unsustainable.
Over the last year or two my depression has started to bite back at me once again, unlike anything whilst not also heavily drinking. I worked harder, longer and continued to think that I could keep on keeping on, but, well this year I’ve started to get closer to the darkness than I ever want too. But, finally only after taking a break from the world and as always, some time to run and calm my thoughts, allowing me to reflect. I am going to lay down my thoughts in order of the issues I have highlighted and equally the measures that I hope to apply in 2018 to once again get back on track.
Adapting to my New Environment
It seems obvious with a fresher pair of eyes, that my choice to once again leave construction and go to university, whilst also running BCT Aspire was a big decision. But I hadn’t thought about the biggest element of change, the change from a highly active and physically demanding life in construction to a relatively sedentary one, sat in a classroom or on a computer. This for someone who maybe didn’t realise just how active my life had been, and more importantly what a crucial part of keeping me well it had been. Working in construction, which involved heavy manual labour everyday of my working life, meant that I never had to worry about additional exercise. I never struggled to sleep, due to the physical tiredness. Even, the banter of working in construction was something I realised was a great way of keeping on top, its unique. These facts led me to believe for a period that as long as I won my other battle, alcohol, I could keep the black dog pinned back. The other equally important point that I have realised is, from the age of 12 I had played regular weekly sport which gave me a regular pattern and routine that again meant that I kept active, alongside the focus on additional training. With my admittance that rugby was a risky sport for me to play due to the connection to drink, it meant that I lost another key measure. This leads into one of the other strategies I have used to replace this, and try to keep me well.
Since 2010, I have taken on at least one large challenge per year, activities that also meant I had to put in considerable training to even dream of achieving them. Trying I guess, to find a new focus to replace what I had lost through team sport. This was coupled with dabbling with trail and ultra running, again looking to add some routine goals to keep me keen. Understanding, that my competitive nature is a beast that needs feeding, even though the competition is very much intrinsic. However, after once again looking to use this approach in 2017 I have realised it is very much a sticking plaster, creating its own problems. My thought process back in 2010 was very much about making things so big and public, that I simply couldn’t entertain failure, the spin-off I was less likely to drink and fall back into old habits. But what I maybe hadn’t realised was that I was choosing to apply massive pressure on myself all the time. Living in a constant state of fight or flight and choosing fight, which burns through energy like there is no tomorrow, mental energy. The lows following these big endeavours taking me into a new kind of dark place.
The other big goal, that has taken up without doubt the larger part of my time and energy, BCT Aspire. I guess if I could see the road in front in me back in 2010, I may have looked at another path. Never realising the years of struggle it would take, without the option of a reprieve, that is until the present time, where I have took a step back and paused to enjoy something that is now doing well and importantly to me, safe and sustainable.
The mix of these factors has meant that I have very much found myself back at a place I know to well, the edge of burn out. Thankfully, I have the skills to at least see some of these things this time round, but equally know that it needs to change. Especially with the birth of my first child in the next few weeks, something that I know changes my world and creates other worries. I can’t keep working so hard day in day out, whilst also looking to pile big challenges on top too. The effect is I am burning myself out mentally, and risking taking myself back to places I never want to visit. This is where hopefully shit gets cool, the obsessive part of my learning journey meaning I do have the toolbox in place, but need to start getting the right tools out for the job. So, what follows is my plan for how I will achieve the most important goal in my life, the one of keeping myself well and as much as possible, free from depressive bouts.
My Daily Priority – Exercise
I guess for people who have always had inactive jobs, it is the norm to have to hit the gym in the lunch hour or use the commuter run to steal some time for exercise. But my job in construction meant that it was never a factor, coupled with regular sport. But what has happened is I have become busier and busier, whilst deprioritising my exercise to the bottom of the list. I had put everything else above it, meaning more days with, apart from the dog walk, whole days of little exercise. My sticking plaster approach, was my beloved Saturday evening run which I had told myself “As long as I get my long run I am ok.” Well I now acknowledge that not just the Saturday night run but the use of big goals to support sporadic phases of physical activity doesn’t work. The answer is building some new daily habits, that have the simple aim of keeping mentally well. Taking the time for me, and feeding the part of me that keeps me fit and mentally strong.
Building a New Cornerstone Habit
One of the books that changed my life without doubt, was the power of habits by Charles Duhigg. The idea that I could with some considerable effort tweak my patterns of behaviour. This was the approach I used to manage my drinking problem. Changing my Saturday routine of rugby and drinking to running and coffee. It didn’t happen overnight but, I wasn’t building a new habit, I was changing the routine of a current one. Saturday sport and then the drinking was linked to the want/need to feel relaxed. I had to change the routine I used to achieve this goal, this is the point I need to achieve in my daily life.
So, I work on a computer now a lot, to relax I will often stop for a short coffee break and then expect myself to work some more. If I have deadlines I will work longer and longer into the night. So, joining the dots about what I need to do has come on the back of my recent barefoot coast to coast and work over the last few years.
I need to do something that rejuvenates my levels of mental energy, the way I achieve this in my case is to do some exercise. To get those naturally occurring good vibes, that lift my levels back upwards. This has linked into starting training with my friend Connor Grover, and the idea of a 9-minute workout routine. In the past, I would maybe have been dismissive of the value of just 9 minutes effort. But, my goal is different now, it is simply about resetting myself mentally and for me, like many I guess, a short period of hard work does the job. It’s not training for a race, it’s not a big goal and it doesn’t take hours. It means that unlike putting massive pressure on myself to head to the hills and run long miles, I can achieve the simple, but important aim of keeping my mind well.
I have taken the other step of making these periods of activity part of my daily work log, this is how I record what I have achieved against my goals for the day. This is the part that means when busy I down prioritise myself and my exercise. I have I guess, reframed exercise to not the least important part of the day, but the most important.
When I use the term cornerstone habit what I mean is, something that leads to other positive habits falling into place. So, with my exercise routine, it has happened like this. I have put in a few minutes either side to do some stretching, which I have only really applied when training for big events then binned again. I take a break from serious thinking and re-engage with some simple mindfulness, being in the moment. Following on from this, it goes further, I take a shower which I won’t lie when in depressed states, self-care falls down the list of priorities. This is massively rejuvenating mentally and means taking a little bit more time for myself. From there instead of drinking yet another cup of coffee, I go downstairs and have a cup of green tea and eat a healthy lunch. It’s like the good vibes created keep on rolling forward. The weird thing is I quite often then really feel like pulling the running shoes on and head out the door for another period of exercise. The level of a couple of hours a day, is nothing compared to when it was 8+ but I think it hits a level that is realistic. I also aim to take pressure off myself, in regards to what I can achieve from a work perspective each day.
Developing Good Habits
I know that I have used my learning of habits within my work and to achieve many of goals over the last few years. Often you have got to look at the overall goal of any action, the thing you want to achieve. So, with drinking my route goal was a feeling relaxed, sadly the routine I adopted of drinking rarely achieved that goal, but an altogether more destructive one. So, the aim is to change the behaviour I use to achieve my goal. The example of swopping rugby and booze for my long run, is a good example. I think that to achieve a new habit, you have to literally attempt to change one thing at a time, and also be completely consistent. So, I knew that whatever happened in my week I would pull the shoes on and head out the door. The result over many years is that on a Saturday I am almost pre-programmed to head out the door. I achieve the state of mind craved, serenity and relaxation. So, my initial target is to embed my 9 minute exercise routine and link this up with the Saturday run. As written above, I know that other good things happen, but at the moment I am only consciously focusing on the exercise loop, the rest is the added bonus.
This year for me will be the year of the daily win, not the big event, the big race or activity. It will be about achieving what I need to do, to simply but vitally keep myself fit and well. So, the above routine will be coupled with taking more pressure off myself, in terms of binning the big goals and working to my actual mental energy levels. This means I must pin up what matters to me most, and then accept the trade-off’s I must make to achieve these goals. This is simple in my life right now, and for the next few years at least. The simple fact of becoming a Dad will change my world in an undefinable way, so I won’t state that now. I will wait till I know the reality and then reset my radar. But other two goals are my degree in psychology and building my organisation into a truly sustainable and well organised youth work provider. Both are well on track, but it does mean that I must accept the things that I no longer have time for partaking. Instead of thinking I can still achieve them and feeling shit when I don’t. I will admit these things need parking up in the short term.
Parking up, is a great way to put it, as one of my accepted points is that I have little time for ultra-running and formal long distance races, something I love but it doesn’t trump achieving the above goals. I need to run, but I don’t need to race and after entering at least half a dozen races last year, where due to other pressures I didn’t even make the start line, I will rephrase this challenge. I am competitive and goals driven, so I need to feed this in my life. So, I will finally start running a park run on a Saturday morning. Learning from the 9 minutes, maybe the 5k which is a race, well as much or as little as you want it to be can feed to goals. The other is the love of the social scene of running, the chat with friends over a brew. I miss this but can maybe take a little of this bit, with the minimum of time commitment. Further still, I will swop the reliance on heading to the moors for simply my local park. This saves hours of travel time, and again hopefully I can get the minimum of fix without the time pressure needed. The park in mind is a place I love, Castle Eden walkway and after doing it for a few weeks I am enjoying it. Socially I know that I will have to say no to things I love to do, but again you have to focus on what matters most. I am lucky I see a lot of people through my work on both fronts. So, time alone and with my own thoughts is actually what I crave come a weekend. I don’t just like it, I need it, the solace and serenity that I can find at times.
Good Enough versus Doing My Best
Funny, I love the fact that this term is also one of the biggest hits of my favourite band. But this point conflicts with my principle life mantra taken from my Grandad “Do your best”, it’s interesting that I am applying some learning from university work on decision making. But the simple message that has struck accord is sometimes good enough is more than enough. This is a really big point for me, the pressure I apply on myself on everything I ever do. I set my goals by the best, regardless of what I do. This I realise is incredibly draining in terms of my mental energy and maybe I can get away with a little bit less. The things that matter most, I can apply the lifelong habit of doing my best, but on certain days and tasks, well lets just do the minimum eh?
Binning the Smartphone
It was over a year ago, that I had a day that made a big impact on me in terms of the effects of technology on my state of mind. On what could have been described as the day from hell, I went away with some fresh thinking, something that I recently forgot until the last week. I was booked to speak at Manchester Met University to give a talk to a group of sports managers. It was a big deal and something that I wanted to do well. However, late the night before my smartphone broke, and with my train at 6am, no time to get a replacement. This would have been bad enough but, I also managed to leave my laptop on the platform at the station. The result I had lost my presentation, which I hadn’t sent due to being a short notice booking and had no means of contacting anyone. I realised that all I had was my mind, and the thoughts within it. This stirred an interesting lightbulb as I begun to people watch and seen 99% of the world absorbed in a phone or tablet. Whilst, I begun to taste some of the feelings I have gained when wandering alone, again without any devices etc. Simply being present in the moment and enjoying what was around me. Anyway cut to the chase, I stuck to this throughout the year and it seemed to work for me. It meant that if I was at university I was present in the task at hand, the same during sessions at BCT, and most importantly more likely to relax at home. Only recently, probably through being at a low ebb I fell back. Maybe, you do crave some external validation through likes and retweets, but I know well that it’s inside my own mind that my relief comes not from others. Straight away I was back to checking my phone every few minutes, stressing about things coming in that made me feel obliged to reply instantly, and lost even more time for resting my tired mind. So, the simple plan, stick to the nokia 3310 meaning if I am out and about doing tasks I am only thinking about that. When I have the time to check other things I will do so, and hopefully this simple measure will help me to once again live a more mindful life, something I truly believe works for me.
My Trusted Inner Sanctum
I guess over the last decade one of the biggest step forwards for me, was understanding that it really does help to be able to talk, openly and honestly. I have a few great friends that understand many of the same feelings that I struggle with, and allow me to open up when things aren’t going well. Fairly recently these people have been a massive help to me. Hopefully I can and do repay the favour when it is needed in the other direction.
Managing my Mental Energy
Over the years, I have became really interested in the idea of mental energy. The learning through endurance events, where for a certain fact I am not as strong physically as some, but with the ability to manage myself mentally. Maybe ironic, for a depression sufferer to say such a thing, but I have applied much of my learning in pretty extreme circumstances and came through it. This year with the barefoot stuff it really was about trying to find the little wins, and when it felt good soaking it up like my life depended on it. Well I see life in the same vein now, and hope to apply this learning. I have a finite amount of mental energy, if I do to much without topping up I will start to creak and feel crap. So, I need to invest the time in topping up my levels, and accepting that I cannot do as much as I have done in the past. For me, physical activity is the key measure for topping up my levels, but others include talking to a friend, listening to music, enjoying the sunrise, sunset, watching the birds in the garden, chilling with Jody and Molly. These all give me more energy to achieve the things I desire in life. But I drink the well dry, well the black dog will appear from over my shoulder and take his revenge.
2018, simply for me the year of the small daily win! PS This does not mean that I won’t take on big challenges, it just means I know they are not part of keeping me well anymore. The reality is I love the things I do and hope when the time comes available I can do some crazy shit to feed the giggling child like Paul within.
Peace & Love