It’s hard to write about mental health when I feel well. It feels like there’s no point, because all is dandy – nothing to worry about, nowt to complain over. So tempting to just… not. That’s because the past is a million years ago, and anything I felt bad about lies in that distant realm. It’s complete nonsense, of course. This is my sense of the present overwhelming both past and future – it’s always been like this and I’ve always felt like this. I am of course ignoring the shadows, the attenuating black lines that extend in all directions; a web I’ve temporarily shredded. It’s also that it’s just less interesting. Any diary keeping is an exercise in maintaining self-interest, and it’s easier to do that when something is happening that one can burrow into, hollow out and turn into an object lesson for oneself. Perhaps being “basically fine” is more empty than the vacuum of despair, at least in terms of things I have to say about it. It’s silly really: I’m instantly losing interest in talking about being OK despite this being the actual goddamn goal. Of course the aim is to feel well, content, and horror possibly even happy. So why am I turning away from it? I think it’s because I’m enjoying it, and the hard introspection that makes negative states both intellectually interesting and productive feels like it detracts from the experience of doing it. Perhaps the ideal state is one in which I’m so fine that I don’t need to worry about it.
On the podcast we often talk about this, the idea that mental health is a bad thing. We mostly find ourselves discussing when we’re down, and how to treat mental health. It feels perverse sometimes to talk about good mental health, and what it takes to maintain that. It’s as if we’d be fine if all the bad things didn’t happen, and so we focus on stopping or managing the bad stuff, and neglect maintaining and encouraging the positives. For me, a helpful tool is to be able to look back and talk to myself in my earlier incarnations and see if I can figure out how I felt. I have dream diaries, and teenage diaries and counselling diaries to read, and all of them describe the interior life of a previous version of myself. They’re very valuable because memory is a lie, and feelings change. Even if I can’t quite understand how I felt so alone or full of rage at a given point, I can read my words expressing those feelings. I don’t need to remember them myself to believe in them, or to be reminded that we contain multitudes, of both emotion and people, and that we change and grow, even if the persistence of time and memory tricks us into feeling as if we’re always the same person. So keeping a record of when I feel good (and the consequent waffling about whether it’s worth noting that I feel good) is equally valuable, because when I feel grim – and I will feel that way again, probably not a very long time from now – I can look back and see that I felt differently. In it there may even be clues as to how I’d maintain this state.
I know some things that are good for me, and in painful inevitability they’re about balance and moderation and maintenance. Can’t we just do stuff and not worry about being in balance? Apparently not. Exercise is frustratingly key. I fondly remember being able to do zero exercise, eat whatever I wanted, sleep sometimes and get on with the day as a skinny lad. Also a lad who was busy ignoring the depression, anxiety and sleep deprivation that erased decades of day to day memories. If you can’t remember it… you can’t remember it, I guess. Now, no fucking chance. My dad used to tell me about putting on an extra stone per decade after turning forty and having real trouble shifting it. Body image is important, I need to look like the me I think I am! Ageing brings plenty of dysphoric shifts in personal perception (I still don’t recognise the pattern of moles after having a biopsy, following which they pulled the skin on my chest back together and moved everything around!), from wrinkles to greying hair (though I’m actually quite pleased by the increasing amount of grey in my hair – some kind of parity between how old I feel, am, and look is quite helpful). Part of the exercise is simply washing my brain in dopamine a couple of times a day – kettlebells in the morning, cycling and swimming at lunchtime during the week. I’ve recently learned I can’t stop the morning workout at the weekends. I think one of the factors that tipped me out into the bleaker tracks over the last few weeks was a bunch of long weekends, in which I truly believe I ought to be able to indulge in lie-ins and doing fuck all. Lying in is fine, but skipping the workout is not. The routine nature of it, the control and the mindful sense of being present in my body, as well as the pleasing sight and feel of harder muscles is all very centreing, and I like it. I can probably skip a day, but not two in a row.
So this is a reminder to me as much as anything: be with the people I love, have lots of free time, do exercise, continue demanding creative tasks, see films, don’t wander around shops – because you’ll want to kill slow-moving people, enjoy being with friends, but don’t plan too many evenings out in a row. Have time to read and do nothing, enjoy work and get immersed in it. Look at stuff and enjoy it.