Like everyone at Publicis, I recently got an email about a mental health survey that’ll be landing in our inboxes soon. I feel lucky to work in a place where the things that affect how we feel are treated as throbbing, beating realities – as real as anything else in or of ourselves that has a name.
I’ve been familiar with mental health services in the UK for over a decade now. My teenage daughter has a number of diagnoses and went to live in residential care when her problems became too acute to be managed at home. It created a fracture in our family, but it saved her life. She’s back at home now, but what I have learned is this: taking care of myself, wherever I am, is the best thing I can do for me and my children.
Mental health conditions come in different guises and sizes - and so do the ways in which people manage them. With an empty morning at work, it got me thinking about free time and what it sometimes does to my head. It can make me panicky and anxious. So I thought I’d write about it.
I use ‘I’ in this piece because I’m not giving tips or advice, but listening to others’ experiences has given me invaluable support and help. Stories have resonated, words have stuck, and both help steer me through good and grim situations. Here are just some of the things I do to stay sane.
I pick up the phone
It can seem like the hardest thing. Of course, calling a friend only requires one good arm and a digit finger, but if I’m down it feels more daunting than dental extraction. And if I’m avoiding talking about something that’s troubling me, that’s a sure sign that I need to make a call.
To get in the practice of talking, I call friends regularly, whatever the weather in my head. Sharing is a release, and listening helps me get some perspective.
I ask for (and accept) help
When my daughter was away, I didn’t have the superspeed power of 5G – she was hundreds of miles from London and I couldn’t be everywhere at once. So I had to take all the support that was offered. Help comes in many magical forms: at work, if I don’t know how to do something I lean over (Hey, Kish) and say, “Have you got a minute?” Making decks (the non-wood variety) gives me heart palpitations, so I usually call on someone* good to show me how.
*(Hey again, Kish.)
Jogging is not for me – I recently did a paltry lap of my local park with friends before declaring: “YOU GO ON WITHOUT ME”. The best exercise makes me red-faced AND happy. During work lunchtimes, I feel shinier after a quick walk through Regent’s Park. Is it CO2, oxygen or lorry fumes? Who cares – it works.
I try to act as if
That little voice in my head, the devil that says “You’re a shit writer/bad mother/fraud!” needs to die. So I think of myself as a famous writer I admire. Jackie Collins, Zadie Smith or John Updike – I’d take any of those. And then I act as if. When she was alive, I imagine Jackie started her writing day with a big blowdry and a double scotch. The more I picture her being fabulous, the better I feel.
I take action
The key here? Spending more time doing and less time thinking. It could be booking a doctor’s appointment, doing that budget, writing that script or calling my Dad about paying back the money I owe him. It’s hard because I’m a scaredy-cat and a natural-born procrastinator. But I always feel better when I’ve done what I need to do.
I try to be honest
OK, so when people ask how I am they probably don’t want the real answer if, say, the kids have had norovirus or my daughter’s talons have taken aim at my face. But hey, a little bit of honesty keeps things real. “A bit shit” is a better answer than the default “Fine, I’m fine”.
I take time out
Not just to go for a drink with a friend. In my head, too. I don’t have to adopt the lotus position – I can meditate when I’m plucking eyebrows or cleaning my ears. I try to empty my mind of noise, by focusing only on the thing I’m doing. I had the Headspace app but Andy’s voice annoyed me. And I had to pay for it. It was a bit like watching a Shakespeare play and thinking “When will this end?”. Now I find the quiet moments whenever I can. No fuss. No cost.
I name it
I can’t remember where I first saw the HALT acronym. (At my kid’s nursery, perhaps?). Nevermind. It’s a goodun. When I’m feeling a little crazy or bad I stop doing what I’m doing (usually shouting at my family for being slobs) and I ask myself, am I HUNGRY, ANGRY, LONELY or TIRED? I can usually put it down to one or all of those things. Naming something doesn’t make it go away, sadly. But it means I can eat, shout at the cat, call a friend, or hit the hay.
There are heaps of unkind things in this world that are unavoidable - Trump, January, that throat-scratchy polluted stretch of the Marylebone road on my commute. So I’m kind where I can be. Mostly it’s about showing myself the compassion I show my friends, which looks a bit like this: “So what if you ate five waffles with butter and maple syrup and then drank two chocolate milks that were meant for your kids’ lunchboxes? Try not to worry about it.” Yup, because life’s short, you can start the day again whatever the hour, and one waffle is sometimes just not enough.
Laundry piles up, the cat’s sick, a deadline looms and I occasionally look at it all and cry. These are the times I forget the stuff that will make me feel better: calling friends, slowing down and getting some sleep. If I beat myself up for the things I fail to do, though, it’s like eating a double-decker shit sandwich. I try to remember that shitness needs to be followed up with kindness. Because everyone has days (sometimes weeks) where they’re the worst version of themselves.
I just say no
People of my generation might remember this song. My ‘nos’ don’t relate to drugs, though, but rather people and plans. I used to say yes to everything, only to cancel last minute when I realised I’d taken on too much. This pissed off my friends and made me feel crap.
Now I only commit to things I know I can (usually) do. It makes life a lot more simple and a lot less tiring.
I’d love to know how you keep your head in check. While mental health issues don’t have the stigma they used to, we’ve got a way to go in understanding how the symptoms manifest themselves, and the ways people manage. Find me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or even better, come and tap me on the shoulder and we can go for a coffee.
You might find some handy info and support around mental health here:
**Header images are by my sister, Eve Ackroyd