musings > mental health

Mental Health: it’s not all in your head

20 May, 2016 | 6 min read

No one with any common sense (and certainly no one who’s been following this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week) can deny that mental health is any less important than physical health. I’ve now said it more times than I’ve talked about owning a Chromebook, and I only ‘came out’ a few weeks ago (and I really like my Chromebook). It is very easy though, especially with the dialogue being so ‘mental health vs physical health’, to forget that it’s not just that one is as important as the other; the two are inexorably linked.

I remembered that the hard way recently. I’ve been viciously unwell over the weekend and for much of this week. It started off with your general ‘blergh’ symptoms, before I progressed into a full-blown bedridden vomiting mess come Monday morning. Took me most of the week to recover. While I did go and seek the advice of a medical professional, to be honest I didn’t really need to. I knew exactly what was wrong with me.

You see, mental illness is a real bastard. Occasionally it’s not enough for it to screw around with the inside of your head. Sometimes it gets bored, and decides to see how much power it has over your body as well.

I’ve been stressed for a while. It wasn’t a big deal — everyone’s stressed; it’s 2016, we basically measure success with how little sleep we get and how big our problems are (rant for how messed up that is, for another time). But what started out as some minor stressing a few weeks ago built up over time, with things adding on. Last weekend wasn’t necessarily more stressful than any other, but it did have stress, and it was another straw on the proverbial camel’s back.

What started out as a combination of insomnia, bad eating, lack of ‘good’ physical activity (i.e. exercise) and abundance of ‘bad’ physical activity (i.e. rushing around all over the place), the aforementioned stress, and coming off my anti-depressants (more on that in a moment), essentially led to the perfect storm of ‘well screw this’ from my body.

What’s your point, Will?

I’m not gunning for sympathy points because I was ill. In fact, you’d be right in thinking that it’s not really that big a deal. Get some good sleep, keep yourself fed and hydrated, don’t work too hard, and basically just relax for a few days whilst your body repairs itself. Easy.

That is where it gets interesting. You see, for a rational, functioning human being, it is that simple. Yet I am spectacularly bad at all of those things. I’m incapable of lying in bed doing nothing and relaxing — not because I need to constantly be active (that is so not the case), but because part of the source of my stress is the level of work involved in running a startup. As an entire third of the capacity of the business, the thought of lying in bed doing nothing for an indeterminate amount of time is harrowing.

So I compromise — I sit in bed and try to do work. But it’s terrible work. I’ve spent an entire week writing two documents, and it’s some of the worst work I’ve ever done. Luckily though, that realisation was enough to convince me to take a break and get some proper rest.

Ha, just kidding. It made the whole thing worse. The worse my work got, the harder I took it, the worse my mood got, the more I forced myself to work, the worse my work got, the harder I took it, the worse my mood got… ad nauseam. Literally.

Pouring fuel on the fire

One thing that I imagine has exacerbated this whole thing is that I’m no longer taking medication for my condition. I mentioned that a few posts ago. What I didn’t mention was that I neglected to tell anyone that I was stopping. And ‘anyone’, in this case, also includes my doctor. I have my reasons for stopping — none of them good enough to justify doing it off the radar.

PSA: Not consulting your doctor before coming off prescription drugs (especially, but not limited to, high doses of anti-depressants), is categorically and completely a stupid idea. Don’t ever do it.

So yeah, that’s my ‘do as I say, not as I do’ piece. I bring it up only because it’s another example of how linked mental and physical health are. Despite the fact that I stopped taking my meds a while ago, the affects can stick with you for a bit — until they don’t. The reason that you’re supposed to be weaned off them is because the whole point of the drugs is to correct a chemical imbalance, and by abruptly shutting that down, you’re effectively throwing yourself into that imbalance again head first.

It’s not like your body doesn’t warn you of this by the way; for weeks now, I’ve been blindly pushing through and ignoring all of the red flags (volatile mood, appetite, and energy levels, to name three), convincing myself that that I was fine. All those horror stories you hear about people abandoning their medication and then losing it? That didn’t apply to me. I had all that on lockdown.

Needless to say, I was wrong. Despite my conviction that the medication wasn’t doing anything for me, one thing that I am forced to admit now is that they were doing at least a part of their job. The rides between the ‘downs’ and the ‘normals’ were a lot smoother on the meds than off. Without them, the transitions are a lot more sudden, and a lot rougher.

I digress. All this is by way of saying that I think I should have crashed a lot sooner. I think the only thing that stopped me was sheer stubbornness. I couldn’t be ill — there’s too much to do, I don’t have time for poor health. So I ignored it and pushed on. I’m fairly certain of two things:

  1. I can’t be the only person who does this — and something I want to explore in a later post is why that is the case (that was the original aim of this post, but I took a detour and, 1000 words later, have only just got back on track, so I’ll spare you all for now).
  2. The irony is that, had I taken my foot off the accelerator earlier on, I could have dramatically decreased the severity of the crash (hey, that metaphor turned out pretty good…). I mentioned above that this was a ‘perfect storm’ of things to have caused me to fall ill. Reducing or eliminating just one of those could have had a marked effect.

Final thoughts

Even by my standards, this post seems largely self-indulgent — and that’s part of the reason I’ve procrastinated on posting it for so long (I wrote a first draft of this on Tuesday, but I’ve waited until the last day of Mental Health Awareness Week to actually post it). It did seem appropriate though to highlight the point that, for all our remembering to take care of our minds, our bodies (and the relationship between the two) are just as important.

I’ve always known that mental health and physical health are linked — and this isn’t the first time my depression has made me physically ill. This is the first time that illness has been quite so severe though, and it has made me think.

I guess I just wanted to share those thoughts.

tags: burnout depression illness mental health

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