MENTAL HEALTH AND ACHIEVEMENT
In 2019, one thing has become more and more prevalent in our society:
Everyone suffers from some sort of mental health issue.
The degree to which we all suffer varies wildly, but I’ve met very few people in my life who wouldn’t admit to going through something traumatic in their life, and not having the tools to help them deal with this trauma, which in turn causes their mental health to deteriorate.
In this article, I would like to discuss the effects of Anxiety, Depression, and the person we become to hide these aspects from our loved ones.
THE PAST, THE PRESENT, THE FUTURE
Personally, I tend to split mental health issues into three separate categories:
- The Past
- The Present
- The Future
The Past is where your depression lives (although I will admit to there being some bleed into the present, but for the purposes of this metaphor, let’s keep it in the past).
This is where your mind travels to when you’re in a state of absence. When you’re lost in memories that have been tinted in the blue of sadness, harking back to the things or people we’ve lost, wasted years, illnesses, or any number of life-altering circumstances.
The Present holds your piece of mind, and your ability to process trauma.
Being “Present” is a strange state of amalgamation of the effects of both Depression and Anxiety, where they also hold no real power, which makes the present the best place to heal. It is in the present that we are able to discover calm, to practice mindfulness, and to process toxic thoughts of the past and the future in a logical manner.
The Future is where our Anxiety is formed and fretted into the present.
Anxiety is what we feel when we are worried, tense or afraid, is that voice in the back of your head that forces you to hesitate, prevents you from moving, and triggers states of fear, panic, and apprehension. Though technically a natural human response when we feel under threat, triggering our fight / flight / freeze responses, anxiety becomes an issue when this feeling is exacerbated.
Depression itself is experienced in a number of different ways, and to varying degrees by sufferers, from extended periods of sadness and lethargy, to the extremes of self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
It’s unsurprising that this is a topic that’s not discussed widely, especially by the male population, as the condition itself is self-destructive, it forces a person to feel “less than”, and to isolate themselves from the people around them.
One key misconception of the condition is that depression only pertains to being sad, it does not.
Depression and Me
For me, my depression comes in waves, and only tends to affect my mood (i.e. triggers sadness) when I’m alone. When I’m out in public, either at work, with friends, partaking in sports etc, my depression persists, but it affects me in different ways.
At work, I’m consciously able to project a particularly happy-go-lucky persona, I’m very sociable and personable, though where I have no filter on my conversation, I am prone to over-sharing about my personal issues and feelings, which it turns out (for me at least) is a relatively cathartic practice, as it allows me to lower the mask without removing it. Giving me a rest.
However, at home, my depression tethers me to my bed.
If I lay down, get beneath the covers, or even simply sit and do menial tasks, it’s likely that I won’t get up again for the rest of the day, I’m consumed by an invisible cloud. This causes me problems when I want to train Jiu-Jitsu, when I want to see my friends, when I want to do something, ANYTHING.
When I’ve succumbed to this lethargy, my mind travels, trying to convince me of things I know not to be true, but it’s here that rational thought takes a step back.
I cancel plans last minute, I eat compulsively, I make myself emotionally distant, and essentially isolate myself in order to protect others from my toxic mindset, projecting my burdensome thoughts on those whom I love and cherish.
I’ve always suffered from depression in some sense, largely brought on by my gender dysphoria, which I’ve experienced all my life. As my life progressed, and I was unable to satiate the immense feelings of discomfort and unease in my mind surrounding who I am, who perceived myself to be, and how I was perceived by others.
Being young, and unable to reconcile these thoughts rationally, or proactively, it led my mental health to becoming dire.
Until I transitioned, I led a double life. I was an actor, my character created from pieces of personalities and ambitions I’d collated from my close male friends, and the characters I gravitated towards on tv. Though this personality became a great friend to me throughout my formative years, my suit of armour if you will, it wasn’t me.
There came a time in my early twenties where I was unable to see a future for myself without my mask, so in the summer of 2006, I attempted to take my own life.
Since then, I’ve had a couple of close calls, the last one being the trigger to my transition, but no further attempts.
At present, I would consider my symptoms to be mild / moderate, as I have recently acquiesced to my body dysmorphia, which has triggered some of the more severe symptoms of my depression, though I’m far from suicidal thoughts.
Much like depression, anxiety can be experienced in a number of ways, and to varying degrees by sufferers, from restlessness, to an insurmountable, and petrifying, feeling of dread.
Anxiety is less common than depression, but when it is experienced, the two tend to go hand in hand to make the suffers life that little more difficult to navigate and enjoy.
Anxiety and Me
Today, my anxiety has specific triggers, so I’m better able to manage my anxiety by managing the scenarios which I know will cause me to freeze.
I didn’t really experience anxiety, crippling anxiety, until I started my social transition in 2014.
I can remember vividly going to leave my home for the first time, my hair down, a semblance of make-up, and wearing a jumper / skirt combination, with a pair of tights and pumps. What I wore caused me no issues, but what my neighbours thought of such a sight was another issue altogether.
I was going to an electrolysis appointment one Friday afternoon, there were a total of thirteen steps between my car and my front door, and when I placed my hand on the handle to leave.
I stood by the door, hand on the handle, for forty-five minutes. Thinking of all the scenarios in which I would be “caught” by a neighbour, or seen by a pedestrian, and called out. For a trans-person, especially at the start of such a dramatic undertaking, comments have a drastic impact on our perceptions of ourselves, so tend to want to fly under the radar as long as possible to allow us to find comfort ourselves before accepting such criticism.
I had this same appointment every Friday for almost eighteen months, but found that after the first three or four months, my anxiety started to fade, and I was able to better able to handle the “butterflies”.
Personally, I don’t believe anxiety would still be a problem for me if it weren’t for an incident that took place early 2015, when I was sexually assaulted, then physically assaulted by two gents on my way back to my car late one evening after visiting the cinema.
For a long while after this event, I struggled to be out of my home past sundown, to the point where it was becoming prohibitive in my day to day life, or lack thereof.
Now, my anxiety only really affects me in crowded places, which can trigger panic attacks, which doesn’t’ help when I’ve spent the last 3 years (near enough) working in central London, and having to travel on the Tube almost every working day, or when one of your favourite things to do is attend Comicon’s…
Mindfulness is an awareness of our thoughts and feelings as they happen moment to moment. Paying attention to the present, to your own thoughts and feelings, and to the world around you, has been known to improve a person’s mental wellbeing.
And many people call this awareness, "mindfulness".
It’s easier, than most give credit, to rush through life without stopping to notice much. Additionally, it’s easy to get caught up with living in our head’s, caught up in our thoughts without stopping to notice how those thoughts are driving our emotions and behaviour.
One of the more important aspect of mindfulness is to reconnect with our body and the sensations experienced. Allowing yourself to wake up to the sights, sounds, smells and tastes around you in the present moment. Which can be as little as the feel of a banister as you walk upstairs, or as much as an extreme experience such as bungee jumping or skydiving.
It's about allowing ourselves to see the present moment clearly.
When we do that, we can positively change the way we see ourselves and our lives.
Mindfulness and Me
Mindfulness is a relatively new concept to me, and as such, I’m still getting to grips with what it means to me, and how I want to use it to help me combat the cloud of my depression and anxiety.
I compare mindfulness to posture, in the sense that if you’re like me, and you’ve worked at a desk for an extended period of time, you tend to have terrible posture. The only way to combat this terrible posture, is to be aware of it, the advice I’ve received from one of my closest friends being “Every time you think about it, adjust it.”
Through this, I’m more mindful of when I’m slouching, and when I’ve slipped back into the harmful hunch of habit, as soon as I think “Posture”, I stop what I’m doing, and make a conscious effort to adjust my seated position to address my posture.
Much in the same way, when I feel myself being overwhelmed, I do my best to stop what I’m doing, take a breath, and readjust my mindset. I try to apply logic to stressful situations, and to simply take a moment to be present, allowing myself to think about what I’m feeling, but literally and figuratively, why I feel this way, and if there’s anything I can do to address it.
COMPETING WITH MENTAL ILLNESS
Despite my many issues with mental illness, I still consider myself relatively fortunate. Whilst I may suffer on a day to day basis, I have also been able to develop a hyper-awareness of myself. I know my thoughts and feelings well; I know when I’m being irrational, and I know when I’m being reckless.
However, there is a considerable bridge between being “Aware” of these things, and being able to “Address” them. Sometimes, I’m able to talk myself out of bed, usually with the promise of food or a movie. Oftentimes I’m able to say no to snacks when shopping, or my cravings get bad, and until recently at least, I’m almost always able to get myself out to train.
But these instances are the exceptions, and far from the rule for the situation.
The most beneficial thing I’ve ever done for my mental health is start practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. In November of 2016, I found myself taking my first women’s class at Liverpool MMA, a Purple Belt Richard Dean, and a wildly talented Blue Belt, Ellie Boylan.
Like most, I didn’t get it immediately, and I floundered for a few months whilst I found my feet, but one thing I noticed much earlier than any of the subsequent benefits was that my confidence started to climb for the first time in a long time, both in my personal life, and professional.
Finding Value in Yourself
Whilst Jiu-Jitsu had a strong impact on my confidence early on, I will be the first to admit that I was surprised by how my thoughts changed over time. My depression and anxiety are still big aspects of my personality to this day, but they don’t affect a lot of the areas they previously had.
One of the most notable changes was in how I thought about my body, where my dysphoria and dysmorphia had previously been strong triggers for my depression, especially once I started testosterone blockers, and losing weight became neigh on impossible where my body had no previous experience of breaking down food for energy without it, causing me to gain weight easily and rapidly.
Now, however, I find myself appreciating my body more for all the things it can do, rather than for how it looks. This mindset manifested when I started to compete more, and began to focus more on the concepts of Jiu-Jitsu, rather than absentmindedly following instruction.
Everyone experiences the Butterflies.
This is the feeling in your stomach produced by your body when reacting to your fight / flight / freeze response to a high-pressure situation or environment. From standing in front of a crowd to deliver a presentation, to meeting a potential partner for the first time, the Butterflies let us know that our body has kicked up its level of alertness, diverting blood to our brains and to our muscles so we’re better able to react to what we’re experiencing so that we can perform at our best.
I was able to find a great deal of success as a Jiu-Jitsu white belt when competing around the country, which I attribute in part to how my transition had prepared me for dealing with being watched, and dealing with this feeling in my stomach. Whilst I wasn’t entirely immune to the butterflies, I was better able to control their impact on my performance because I was more readily able to trust in my teachers, and in my experience.
This isn’t the same for everyone. Anxiety is the heightened level of significance that we place on our butterflies, it makes us slow, seize, and hesitate when our body has been primed for movement and complex thought. This is what causes us to shake when we’re nervous or scared, our body needs do something in reaction to the increased blood flow.
Whilst I appreciate it’s easier said than done, these butterflies are our body’s physical response to let us know it’s ready and prepared for a stressful encounter, so rather than retreating into yourself and succumbing to your anxiety’s apprehensions, just move. Use the additional energy your body has produced, focus on what it is you want to achieve, and move toward it.
Once you start, you’ll find the butterflies will subside as your focus shifts.
Mindfulness itself is a difficult goal to achieve. Finding stillness in yourself, and allowing yourself to experience the world around you is a difficult objective to achieve, especially if you don’t particularly know what it is that feels like, which is where Jiu-Jitsu comes in.
Live sparring in Jiu-Jitsu, once you have more than a basic understanding of what it is you’re looking to achieve, actively forces you into a state of mindfulness. When you’re rolling with another practitioner, you will start finding yourself slip into a heightened state of awareness, where you experience every movement, grip, and subtle shift in pace and intensity.
It's in this pocket where the world around you is able to fall away, and you’re better able to see who you really are, how you truly feel, and what you’re actually capable of.
This is part of the reason that so many find the sport so addictive, as its in these moments that we are able to cast off the shackles of the day to day issues we experience, and our past traumas, and allow ourselves to simply live in the moment, thinking only of the challenges directly in front us, far from our pasts, and whatever the future has in store.
The Imposter on the Mat
One of the more complicated issues that presents itself in Jiu-Jitsu, is a relatively common thought process that can be instigated by the many symptoms of depression.
Imposter Syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which a person is unable to internalise their accomplishments, and whilst it appears to be more widely experienced and discussed by women, especially those who many would consider “High Achievers”, it actually effects large numbers of both the male and female populations in roughly equal numbers.
This state of mind is a toxic thought pattern that builds on the strong feelings of guilt or worthlessness produced by depression, adds in a constant state of anxiety, and produces an emotion which causes a person to dismiss their successes and accomplishments as luck, good timing, whilst widely dismissing their own performance, and exacerbating their perception of others, believing them to be generally better, more intelligent, and more competent than they actually are.
“Imposter Syndrome” is a psychological term that refers to a pattern of behaviour where someone so heavily doubts their accomplishments, and suffers with a persistent, often internalised, fear of being exposed as a fraud.
This feeling of being a fraud introduces perhaps the most limiting part of dealing with this condition, in that it can limit a person’s courage to go after new opportunities, explore potential areas of interest, and to put themselves out there in a meaningful way.
The Imposter in Me
I spoke earlier about my relatively successful competition career at white belt in Jiu-Jitsu.
When I started, I was so excited to test myself against other women in the community, putting the techniques I’d learned against the skill and athleticism of those who had a similar level of training and understanding.
The experience was exhilarating, and it gave me a good deal of confidence in my ability, but then something changed. At one of the competitions I’d participated in, I overheard someone talking about me, saying that the only reason I beat them was because I was heavier than them. This was then further exacerbated when I was called out on Reddit and in a Jiu Jitsu Group on Facebook.
My mental health was directly attacked by people, some of whom I knew and respected, which attributed my success to anything and everything but my skill as a grappler.
Now, I tend not to compete very much at all. It doesn’t hold the same excitement or meaning for me anymore, as all I do is open myself up for criticism from others, and fall into a toxic mental decline where I devalue all of the effort, work, and time I’ve put in to what I’m capable of.
After spending a good ten months out of the sport whilst recovering from surgery, I now find myself trying to figure out what Jiu-Jitsu means to me, what it is I want to achieve in the sport, and how to get back to where I was before my time off.
I’ve spent a lot of time being lazy, and living in my head, which has prompted issues for me in that I have struggled through losing the edge I’d sharpened previous to my time off, I question my ability more and more, and struggle to make it to class, as I’m now more susceptible to my depression that I allow myself to be talked out of training more easily.
My mental health has been in decline over the past year due to recovery, work, and stress with family, which has prompted me to miss meeting up with my family, to miss Christmas with my parents, to miss my best friend’s wedding, and to skip numerous training sessions.
I’m doing my best to help myself out of this hole, but progress is slow, and I appreciate this.
Slow, but not stopped.
As with everything in life, mental health is something that needs to be actively thought about, addressed, and nurtured. Changes seldom happen overnight, and require constant work and attention in order to help them improve.
All you need to remember is this:
Regardless of what it is you’re looking to accomplish in your life, you are worthy of it.
Remind yourself as often as you need to.
And when you finally find yourself in a position where you’re comfortable with yourself, and what you’ve achieved, don’t forget to look back and see how far you’ve come.
After all, every journey begins with the first step, and whilst some will need to walk longer than others to reach their goals, try to keep in mind that the journey is what gives the destination meaning, so be sure to enjoy it as best you can, so you can appreciate where you end up.