Back on New Year’s Day in 2014, there was no way I could have ever imagined writing this blog, but exactly 1,376 days after I set in motion a plan to raise mental health awareness by attempting a series of challenges, I have completed the 100th and (for the time being at least) final task.
That equates to a challenge every fortnight for almost four years; it all seems slightly surreal, and a long way away from the original idea that (in age-old Archimedean fashion) I had in the bath back in late 2013.
The initial aim was to work through 40 challenges in 2014, trying to raise £1,000 for the charity Mind, whilst sharing my own experiences in an effort to show that it is fine to talk about mental health; and asking for help is a strength; not a weakness.
Twelve months and £1,064.04 later (and I still don’t know where the 4p came from), the work with Mind came to an end. I had no intention of continuing, but the importance of the message(s) and almost addictive nature of the challenges made me decide to add more tasks to the list, and begin an association with Time to Change that has so far lasted two-and-a-half years.
By sharing my personal experiences, I have given away some of my innermost thoughts and feelings. I realised that this would allow family, friends, and essentially even total strangers an insight into a part of me that I’d deliberately kept hidden for decades. But if I was going to encourage people to talk openly about such a difficult subject, then allowing others to see the person behind the mask was as important as it was unavoidable.
There will have been moments when those closest to me may have been upset by what they have read … the duration and extent of dysthymia’s effect on me. I haven’t intended to cause any distress, nor have I ever wanted any sympathy. From my wonderful parents, I have received constant love and support, and I am certain that their growing understanding of the impact of my condition has brought us even closer together.
I am so blessed to share my life with Elaine; the most special person I have ever met. She’s always there, by my side, giving me the belief and strength to talk, to face the toughest challenges, and to not fear failure (well not as much as I used to!). I will never forget leaving the stage after my first attempt at live stand-up comedy back in December 2014, and seeing the look of sheer pride in her face. So much emotion was encapsulated into that split-second, and it remains one of the defining moments of these past few years.
These challenges have also changed (for the better) some of the relationships I have with relatives and friends. I have often worried about people getting tired of “listening to the same old record”, but there have actually been occasions when others have actually found the courage to share—some for the very first time. I can’t tell you how humbling it is to see and hear someone have the strength and trust to take such a massive step.
Over the past few years, I’ve learned so much about myself (and my condition). There have been times when long-suppressed memories have resurfaced and cause quite a bad negative reaction. I feel that this is an almost inevitable by-product of raising mental health awareness; but I can justify the horrible days if there’s a chance I could make even a small difference to someone.
Do I still get dark thoughts? Yes … fairly often.
Do I still have panic attacks? Yes … from time to time.
Do I still get emotionally exhausting bad dreams? Yes … almost every night.
And do I still wake up feeling flat every morning, almost dreading the day ahead? Yes … every single day.
But I’ve now reached a point where I understand my dysthymia pretty well; it doesn’t make those bad days any less horrible, but I have manged to learn ways of trying to cope. I still get episodes of profound sadness (and there doesn’t have to be a trigger), but even when the tears flow and I begin to feel overwhelmed, I can sense an inner defiance; a willingness to resist, and even retaliate.
Dysthymia is a nasty, insidious condition; and a powerful adversary. Unlike many other mental health conditions, it may not necessarily force you to face regular emotional extremes, but instead it chips away at everything that’s positive, day after day, month after month, year after year, until you accept that how you feel is “normal”, because you simply can’t remember anything different.
But the one thing dysthymia is unable to do is stop you fighting back.
Keeping my condition hidden made it so easy for dysthymia to control my mood … and, by definition, much of my life—(for “dysthymia”, you can probably insert any number of other mental health conditions). Such is the stigma surrounding mental illness, that many choose to fight alone … there’s simply too much embarrassment or shame in opening up about such a difficult subject.
It’s my belief that mental illness thrives on secrecy and silence. Concealing an unseen, yet debilitating condition uses up vast amounts of emotional energy; to challenge a dominant mind, that energy needs to be released and redirected—and talking might just be enough to break a destructive cycle. I’m not suggesting that talking offers that elusive miracle cure or guaranteed full recovery; but four years and one hundred challenges later, I think I am reasonably well-placed to say that speaking about my condition, and openly sharing my experiences has genuinely improved my life.
None of this would have been possible without Elaine, my family, and close friends, as well as the long list of amazing and inspiring people who helped turn a series of random ideas into actual events. I honestly can’t thank each and every one of you enough for the massive difference you have made…
The end of the challenges will herald the start of a new chapter. I’m so excited to be working with Trigger Press on my book Today, Just Like Yesterday (which is due for publication in April); and I have a few other ideas and plans for 2018 as well. Hopefully things will work out, but whatever the future holds, I intend to keep fighting, and keep doing whatever I can to help others do the same.
Richard... Jack of some trades... you can guess the rest