Wellbeing: Feeling Good – The New Mood Therapy

Before this turns into a rant about the state of mental health care in the UK, I’m going to give a brief overview of my experiences and where I am at the moment, as well as looking at one of the books that started my journey into looking seriously at my wellbeing.

I see my mental health issues as being quite situational, so most of my problems stem from how I react to things rather than feelings that come out of nowhere. I don’t feel like I’ve had any formal diagnosis and a lot of the help I’ve been offered seems to be more to do with what is fashionable and cheap. At the moment that has meant a recent movement from CBT to Mindfulness. In terms of managing my mental health, both of these seem like good options for me.

I went to my first counselling appointment as a teenager, in reaction to a difficult period where I felt there was something wrong with me, but left with the therapist telling me that I was “okay” and didn’t need to come. This was at a point where I actually was a lot better, but looking back, my teenage years at secondary school are probably the most likely time I would label as having suffered from clinical depression, though I never got that label.

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The next time I looked for counselling was at university. They offered person-centred therapy and I finished it, but didn’t find it any more helpful than talking to a friend. I realised that it was the constant going out and binge drinking that is accepted as such a normal rites of passage at university, which was causing me problems. Again, this was a situational thing, but also chemical. Alcohol is obviously a depressant. But more than that, as an introvert, going out so much was exhausting and unnatural for me, and it resulted in a physical illness so bad it could have developed into what the doctor termed “leukaemia and other nasties”. For me, my mental and physical health are intrinsically linked.

Anyway, I don’t think the way we drink in the UK is normal, and although my behaviour was much like any other university student, I wanted to reach a position where I felt I didn’t need to binge drink. Lying in bed all day was something I should do (and still should do more), but without the horrible feelings that come with being hungover. I decided to go to alcohol counselling. The sessions were helpful and interesting, but it is still something I struggle with if given the chance to drink into the early hours. More helpful has been getting a job and focusing more on my career. I do like the odd night of dancing, but generally I prefer pubs and restaurants.

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It was this focus on my career though, that has meant for the last three-four years since graduating from my MA I have been working so hard that I’m risking burn-out again. People have different tolerance levels, but for me working 35 hours a week, travelling 3 hours a day to and from work (often standing in rush hour), and on top of that trying to work a second job that encompasses many roles within it – writer, performer, event organiser, workshop facilitator, editor – is impossible to keep up for much longer. For the last couple of years I have been trying to find a way to make this work better, and although I feel I’ve have anxiety from a very early age, I’m now at a stage where assessments have shown that I have GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder). It feels slightly more official than a doctor at university saying it sounds like I have cyclothymia, but in both cases I’m highly functional with it, so the only problem is how I feel inside rather than anything else.

I was recommended the book ‘Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy’ by David D. Burns. What I found most eye-opening and helpful about this book was the list of cognitive distortions. I was guilty of so many. There are many different techniques and suggestions that are in-line with CBT. I’m not always very good at actively doing these things, but I do find it useful to have these exercises at hand. Burns also makes the point that having therapy alongside medication is much better than just using medication alone. Its guide to anti-depressants made me feel lucky that my problems are mostly mild-moderate, as there are so many side-effects and so many different types, the trial-and-error you have to go through to get the right medication is a battle in itself.

During the time of reading this, I also got some CBT phone-calls, because the journey to my “local” psychological service was too difficult and stressful to get to. Sometimes with CBT it feels like you understand the logic of what you’re doing, but it has very little impact on the very real feelings associated with these thoughts. Maybe this is because the cognitive distortions are so embedded, but at times I felt like I was lying to myself and the therapist when the percentage I gave linked to a particular thought. Initially they had offered me to join a group Mindfulness session, which provoked lots of negative emotions, feeling like I wasn’t getting what I asked for, and just being offered it because it was cheap and fashionable. That said, I have come to see how Mindfulness is what I need, but it’s actually setting aside the time to do it that I find difficult.

My partner is a visual artist, so over Christmas, and beyond, I’ve been able to take some time to colour-in, which I’ve found to be a good exercise. I’m into all that return-to-childhood type stuff, so though I know it’s become a bit of a cliché, I think it’s good for people like me who like to be constantly doing things, as it’s an activity that keeps you occupied, but means you can relax your mind and zone-out a bit too. Meanwhile, I’ve also started some CBT sessions as part of a research project comparing CBT to a particular drug. I’ve found this quite interesting, and more useful than the phone calls. This isn’t just because it’s face-to-face, but because there is more of the B (behavioural). I’ve been set small steps to try to deal with uncertainties better – a massive problem for me, being quite the control-freak! Some of the stuff that has come out of it has been really eye-opening and I feel like I’m discovering things about myself, like how I actually have a lot of positive associations with worrying, such as it being a sign for care (inherited that one from my parents).

One of my tasks for this weekend is to leave some time for “unstructured activities”. I always set myself too many things to do, so even when I intend to do this, or to do more relaxing activities, the time gets eaten up and I always end up sacrificing it. As it’s homework, it should hopefully push me to actually do it. I’m also doing something extreme to help with the pattern I’ve got into with over-stretching myself with work etc. I’ve handed in my notice at work! But this post is quite long enough, so I’ll save that for another time…

Bad Poet: Sometimes You Have to be Bad, Before You’re Good

Today, in case you hadn’t heard, is National Poetry Day. I’m feeling like a bad poet because I’m not attending any events to mark the occasion. At the most, I’ll probably watch and listen to all the stuff that’s happening online, trying to understand the mixture of pride, envy and joy at watching/listening to poetry by my peers featuring on national television and radio.

As I write this, I’m on my way back from my day job, where I work as an Academic Mentor for English. This morning I played Year 10 ‘Origin Story’ by Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye, whilst trying to convince them to come to my Creative Writing Club. This is something I will do again no doubt, and in fact, I ended my day going into a class to hand out letters with permission slip. One student took one. There are currently two members in my club. Replacing First Story is going to be harder than I thought. But still, it’s early days. Last year, two Year 8 students – a boy and a girl – made their own version of ‘Origin Story’ and, along with my new Feminist Group, my main goal this year is to make this a success.

That goal applying to my day job. By night, I used to be able to go to events like National Poetry Day Live at the Royal Festival Hall, which is where I was this time last year. However, tonight I will be largely writing an assignment for a CELTA course I’m studying part-time. This means I’m doing two 13 hour days each week (because, you know, full time job), plus attending some Saturdays. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I rise at 6.30am and go to sleep at 11.30pm. On top of this, I have to do these assignments, thoroughly plan lessons for the course, observe others teaching, and be observed myself… By five people (I was less than happy when informed I’ll be observed twice in my day job too, but hey, I should be used to it, at least!)

Tonight I’ll also try to fit in a rehearsal for a poem I’m performing on Saturday night (details below), and if I’m lucky, I can work on the poem I started writing last night when I should have been sleeping.

If I sound like I’m being negative, I am. I have Generalised Anxiety Disorder, plus some mild symptoms of depression. I’ve had six weeks on CBT, and been offered to take part in a trial. However, I find it too stressful to go to my “local” service provider, so we’ll see what happens with that. Sometimes it just feels like another thing to tick off the to-do list. 

Poet Tim Clare suggested the book ‘Feeling Good’ by David D Burns, M.D. and it was when reading it that I realised I was guilty of pretty much all of the cognitive distortions. Here’s a list:

  1. All-or-nothing thinking: I’m not on TV, I’m a failure as a poet.
  2. Overgeneralisation: This can be really bad, it’s like when things pile up so much that one thing sets off a continuous stream of negative thinking and it’s like there’s no way out. These days are usually a write-off, and the best thing is forced relaxation and an early night.
  3. Mental Filter: I hate making mistakes, so whenever this happens, or if I say something stupid, I will thinking about it constantly for multiple days. Sometimes if I feel like I’ve been talking “too much”, I have to just not say things I think of saying because I overthink what I say so much.
  4. Disqualifying the Positive: I guess this one is similar to number 6, but my parents’ support probably best explains this.
  5. Jumping to Conclusions: a/ Mind Reading: I haven’t heard from members of my poetry collective; they must not like me anymore. b/ Fortune Teller Error: If there’s a slight indication of a problem I have to nip it at the bud. This is probably how this one manifests itself as I worry about the outcomes of things so much that I do everything I can do to prevent the disaster in my head to the extent that I don’t seem to care how others perceive me in that time, until afterwards when I feel immense paranoia about how I’m viewed.
  6. Magnification or Minimisation: Like I said, links to 4, but I will focus on not being picked for one thing, and minimise the success of other things, such as recently being emailed about an opportunity linked to a project that saw my poetry played at the Southbank Centre, where the individual described a new poem I sent as”Visceral and shattering.  Hard to hear but necessary.”
  7. Emotional Reasoning: For this one, I guess it’s mostly in terms of relationships with other people. I find it hard to keep up with my friends because of lack of time, and distance with certain people, but they’re so important to me. However, when I don’t hear from people, I assume because I feel sad about it that they’re not as bothered about seeing me.
  8. Should statements: There was something in the book that was a bit of a revelation. By expecting too much of myself, I obviously end up exhausted and unable to keep up, but in turn I also place those same expectations on others and I become “bitter and self-righteous” when they are not met. This was something I realised was really harmful to my relationships with others. Communication is the key here.
  9. Labelling and Mislabeling: I feel like I don’t do this as much, but it could be because it can be quite subtle in a way. The automatic thought of “I’m so stupid” etc. is so familiar that it’s hard to even be conscious of it. The last time I did this, I cried and felt bad on my journey home from my Gran’s, where I’d stayed with my boyfriend, as I’d left chicken and fish bones in the bin because I didn’t know where to put it outside.
  10. Personalisation: This happened on a project where everyone was so positive about it, but the person I was working with said they couldn’t wait until it was over. I took their honesty as being about me, and saw it as a failure, when really they had a lot more going on that was nothing to do with me.

I hadn’t intended this to be so long, but this seems to be what happens… I write nothing for ages and then ramble on for so long that people will inevitably get bored before the end! But if you’re still with me… I guess my point is that I have been feeling disappointed in my progress within the world of poetry, but that part of me knows that I need to enjoy the journey rather than be so focused on an essentially imaginary end-point. I’ve been working on overdrive since I started working full-time, to the point where I don’t know what a normal existence looks like. Now I’ve taken on this CELTA course, I know that I won’t be able to participate in the poetry world as much as I would like to… including my beloved Burn After Reading events (now on Mondays) and The Writing Room Presents… Jawdance (Wednesdays). Recently, I wanted to take more care of myself. My goal was to give myself the time that normal people have to unwind, to make it Sundays. But, I need my Sundays now to work as I have such little time to do so otherwise. Maybe a New Years Resolution then.

I was inspired by one of my tutors on the course, who now works freelance. This was my aim over three years ago, and I’m now making plans to launch my career properly. I’ve been performing my poetry for nine years now. I count it from my first open mic’ event, and why not? There are poets out there who have achieved more than me and haven’t even been doing it a year! Is that the negative voice talking? Maybe.

Anyway, my plans – or my hopes – for the future are to use this CELTA course to live abroad for around a year, a year and a half. I then hope to come back having saved enough money to move out of my parents’ house (that was why I’ve been in this job for so long) and buy myself some time. I’ll try to get some part time work that will allow me the flexibility to truly focus on my passion. I’m hoping that with time to devote to my artistic practice, that I will start enjoying the journey more. I’m also hoping that my travels will allow me some perspective that I simply can’t seem to get when I’m exhausted on the 7.25am train towards Waterloo. And as fellow poet Sophia Walker pointed out, that other than just thinking about what I can offer the countries I go to, they will also have much to offer me and I will grow as a writer and as a person in ways I won’t know now.

So, these will be the last few things I’m up to this year, but I reckon it’s the max I can afford to do time-wise:

-Feminism in London Evening Party

-Working on a Burn After Reading project

-An event on Superheroes and Supervillians

-Homeless Not Hopeless event

Hopefully I’ll catch some weekend events and open mic nights, and, of course, there’ll be She Grrrowls… I don’t want to end it so soon, so maybe I’ll do a January goodbye party… I’m not sure exactly when I’ll be going, but January seems like a good time for a bon voyage!

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Okay, I can’t quite end it there. Here are some nice things to look at for National Poetry Day:

  1. Selina Nwulu won the prize for Young Poet Laureate for London. Since working with her on Word’s a Stage (Apples and Snakes), we’ve shared pre-poetry food, post-show feminist discussions and dressed up in 1920s gear to see Laura Marling. She’s a fantastic poet, has featured at She Grrrowls, but is also such a lovely person. Representing the shy girls!
  2. Jodi Ann Bickley’s animated poem called ‘Brave’ on BBC Radio 1xtra’s Words First. I met her at Bestival last year (I think… the festivals blur!) and I’m so glad to hear new work from her.
  3. Some of my friends and peers on this Buzzfeed list. 
  4. I’m currently reading R.A. Villanueva, Reliquaria, and have just finished Sophia Walker’s Opposite the Tourbus.
  5. Chocolate Poetry Club put up this video of me featuring there and is celebrating its first birthday on Sunday 1st November.