“When I began searching for help with my mental health, I got stuck with a bunch of different diagnoses. But I didn’t find￼ the labels helpful because it seemed like I could get a different one depending on the particular symptom troubling me, the person giving the diagnosis, and maybe what either of us ate for lunch that day.
I also happened to lack insight into the delusions and compulsions with which I struggled. I knew I felt terrible and the tiniest possibility of a problem could send me spiralling into chest-crushing despair or a week-long anxiety attack, but I didn’t connect those experiences to all of the unhealthy stuff I was doing in my life. If I stayed home to watch my stove so I could be certain it wouldn’t spontaneously combust, or I threw out some food because I thought somebody might have poisoned it, I believed it was all totally necessary. The irrational people were the ones not staying home to watch their stoves!
I constructed my life around my compulsions and anxieties. I was afraid of contamination so I was only eating frozen food (which I didn’t actually see as safe but bought because I would sue the brand when I inevitably got poisoned). I wasn’t using knives because I was afraid I’d stab somebody or myself, so processed food was really all I could eat. I struggled to cross the street, I couldn’t count properly, was convinced I’d be arrested at the airport because I wasn’t the person in the passport I was holding. I could lose entire days to compulsions online. I’d see my face getting smashed in on the stairs and I’d feel it in my jaw like it had actually happened. I wasn’t walking past a nearby school because I’d see the kids getting their heads split open on the playground. I was going through elaborate, sneaky rituals to hide my belongings when I left my apartment or returned (because I was being watched by thieves). This list could go on. My mental health was not in good shape but I was very good at inventing rational-sounding excuses. I really only noticed there was a problem because I wanted to write a book–I’d always wanted to be an author–so I took several months off but couldn’t write anything.
After some botched attempts to get help, I made it into a research program on Exposure & Response Prevention (ERP) therapy with a psychologist that helped me see I could make changes, even with things I’d done my entire life. It was difficult/excruciating work, and my first week of attempting to cut out compulsions ended in sweaty panic attack failure, but I gradually began to push into the experiences and reclaimed my life, one change at a time.
It was through therapy that I began to see how the things I’d been doing my entire life to control anxiety, to cope with depression, and try to avoid every uncomfortable experience imaginable, hadn’t actually been helping me. They were, in many ways, the source of the problem.
I was also helped by work i was doing at grad school on product and service innovation. That might seem like an odd support for mental health, but innovating for a customer is all about the team sticking to values– what the customer needs and what will make them happy- instead of reacting to uncertainty and falling back on what the team has done before. This is exactly what we do when we venture into the uncharted territory of recovery from mental illness. Instead of putting fear in charge of my decisions I had to let my needs guide me and make choices that would help me be healthy and happy over the long-term.
Now I don’t struggle with any of the symptoms I had in the past. It was a ton of challenging changes every week, just like making any change or learning any new set of skills. But I can cook real food now and leave my apartment whenever I want and I wrote my first book, “YOU ARE NOT A ROCK: A step-by-step guide to better mental health (for humans)”. In the UK it’s called “THE MIND WORKOUT”.
Experiencing these changes opened my eyes to what’s possible with our brains. Now I approach my mental health and fitness the same way I approach my physical health and fitness – they’re both changeable and improvable and affected by my actions and environment each day. Mental health has become something I do, not something that happens to me.
My experience with the mental healthcare system also made me aware of the massive gap between where the science is at on recovery and what’s generally accessible to people. If somebody wants to recover from mental illness, that’s something we know how to help them do, but there are many barriers to accessing those skills. So several years ago, I started sharing videos and blog posts online about how to succeed with evidence-based therapy exercises. Much of my day-to-day job now is working with people around the world on how to navigate the complex changes involved with recovery and build mental fitness skills.
We don’t have a name for this kind of role yet. What I do is the mental health equivalent of a personal fitness trainer. If you’re injured, you go to a doctor or a physiotherapist. But if you want to run a marathon or deadlift 500 lbs or balance on your head, you go and learn from somebody that lives and breathes that practice. As we break down stigma and demand better mental health services, I think we’ll see more of an expectation that people working in mental health actually know how to implement the changes they expect of their clients. And that’ll be valuable for everybody.
We are so excited to introduce a new segment on our blog and social media called Meet Mental Health Professionals. Every fourth Tuesday we will have a story from a mental health professional, where you’ll hear about their journey and how they got to where they are now.
As well as this, we will have an Instagram Stories Takeover that week with each professional where you will be able to ASK your mental health questions and get answers from professionals!
We hope this will bring more education to this blog and professional help, as we know not everyone is able to afford to seek help or is on the never ending waiting lists for it.
We would love to hear your feedback about this segment so let us know in the comments and on our social media what you think!
Check out our new, ethically made, from 100% organic cotton – merchandise
to help raise mental health awareness; https://kayska.teemill.com/