I’m sat looking over a cliff at a beautiful bit of beach that in a bit I’m going to go and explore. The sun is shining, it’s reasonably warm and there are two baby rabbits sunbathing close by. I’ve just finished a yoga class and am very much enjoying the tranquility that is around me. I’m trying to do something that I don’t do very much, and relax. But as part of that I felt the need to reflect a little bit on the end of a week that has been, by all accounts, an interesting yet emotional one.
For a start it has been both mental health awareness week and national vegetarian week. Both of these are subjects that are close to my heart. Whilst I tried to make light of it in a tweet, suggesting that being vegetarian is linked to my wellbeing because I enjoy eating, it is slightly more linked than suggested. It is true, I do enjoy eating. But being vegetarian is more than just enjoying good food – it’s part of me, part of my identity and it turns out important to my wellbeing.
Over the last two years I have had a rather large share of difficulties in the work place. These culminated in August 2018, when I ended up losing two paid roles and a voluntary position in the same field due to two unknown persons making allegations that led to a 7 month gross misconduct investigation, a 6 hour panel and two hours of decision making by very senior staff members, which culminated in my being completely cleared of all 3 charges. Clearly that did not resolve the mess that had been made of my career, but it did go some way to proving that I wasn’t the person that there was an attempt to make me look like. During that time frame I was unemployed for 3 months before changing service sectors, and that gave me some real time to assess what I wanted to do with my life, and who fundamentally I was. It made me question everything. What I wanted, what I needed, where I wanted to be. I’m still constantly assessing that. But something that repeatedly came back, asking my heart rather than my head, was that I fundamentally missed being vegetarian. I missed the food, I missed know I was helping the planet and reducing my carbon footprint. I missed physically how I felt. I’ve always been a staunch believer, for the 5 years I ate meat, in the fact that if I couldn’t face the idea of killing it myself, I wouldn’t eat it. But something in me changed. I was going to yoga more, I was spending more time outside in nature, I was focussing on my impact in this world more than I had for a long time. And I realised there were aspects of my character that I fundamentally disliked. No longer being vegetarian was one of them. It was also the easiest one to rectify. I’ve had fantastic support from friends over this, from gifting me new veggie cook books to swapping out the meat completely on a BBQ recently. This leads into the mental health aspects.
My point, in a long winded way, is that sometimes the best way of checking your own mental health is check what makes you happy, and find out if you are doing it. I’ve been trying to remember who I was before my personality and interests were reduced to my work life, before I was consistently told that I wasn’t good enough and my face didn’t fit. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and doing the things I used to do back when I was at university, and even further back than that. Some of the stuff I now quite frankly hate, but some makes me smile and remember the purple haired hippie goth (it was an interesting mix) kid who just wanted to save the world.
My MA was focussed on people being able to be themselves and encouraging the employment of a neuro-diverse range of individuals. It highlighted the advantages this bought to an employer. It made the point that if we embraced everybody’s individual strengths we would all become stronger. Yet I went into a work place where I was so gradually consumed that somewhere down the line I lost myself, and I didn’t even notice it happen. I stopped dressing the way I wanted. Bit by bit I started to become the corporate clone that was required. Ironic, considering everything that I had written. With the loss of myself my mental health deteriorated. I became anxious all the time, worried that I wasn’t like everybody else. Worried that I wasn’t doing enough. Worried that I wasn’t liked. Worried that my fundamental character traits (I’m outspoken and incapable of keeping my mouth shut when I have concerns) were causing problems. Worried (and rightly so in this respect) that my performance was being judged not on the performance itself, but on my character.
However, in 2017 I went to work with a different team for 4 1/2 months. It was the best part of my career as an adult. I worked with a team where people were themselves. They embraced each others differences and worked with them. These were people with hobbies and interests and families and lives that, despite the high pressure role and long hours, had not been consumed by the job. It was refreshing, and amazing and EXACTLY what I needed. It reminded me that I could be myself. And for the first time in a couple of years, I felt like me again. I took up new hobbies, I tried new things. With a bit of guidance I tried yoga, and adored it. In some respects it kept me sane when everything went wrong. I started running, swimming and generally exercising more. I was eating better, more exciting and more interesting food. I had just begun keeping an allotment, and one of the team talked me through what to expect. I made friends for life, who were interested in me, not my work and it was refreshing in the extreme. When I went back, and everything went wrong, it was these people that stuck by me, that had my back and reminded me that I was myself and should not listen to the lies I was being told. They quite literally saved me.
Recently several people have told me that I am strong. This is not necessarily true. A team of amazing friends and a passionate, dedicated and through union rep that I am beyond lucky to have had picked me up, dusted me off and kept me going every time something else was thrown at me. I may be standing upright, but the hands resting at my back, reminding to be myself, to breathe and to keep travelling forwards are the ones that deserve the credit. I haven’t gone insane thanks to those people. I am very much heading towards the geeky, book loving, video game playing, music loving hippy goth who wants to help the world again. It’s been a long journey. It’s taught me a lot, and it’s nowhere near done. But as mental health awareness week draws to a close take the time to check in on your friends, your family, your acquaintances. You never know when a kind gesture will be the thing that keeps someone fighting through to the next one. It’s the million little things – the check in, the flirty message, the funny image, the ‘this made me think of you’, that makes up happiness. Never give up doing things for others – but never lose your fundamental self in the process.
Post Script – I went on the beach. I walked along bare foot and thanked the universe for my friends, for the chances I am being given, and that I survived the past 18 months. I messaged someone I cared about, just to let them know the difference they had made in my life. Then I walked back and ate cake. Sometimes the little things are the ones that lead to happiness.