Why Baby Steps Are More Important Than New Year’s Resolutions In Mental Health Recovery

There are two kinds of people in this world, those who like and make New Year’s resolutions, and those who think that New Year’s resolutions are pointless and should actually be renamed as “things you try to do all year but give up on by February”. I myself however, am somewhat in the middle of these two kinds of people (much like I am on the whole Marmite debate. I don’t love it, nor do I hate it. I am truly indifferent…WHAT DOES THIS MEAN).
I actually like the idea behind New Year’s resolutions. I think it is good to see the new year as a chance to improve on whatever happened in the previous one, see it as a fresh start and a clean slate without all the baggage you have dragged around for the past twelve months. That said, I have not made a New Year’s resolution myself since 2010, and that is because I feel that when people make these promises to change, they are far too ambitious and unattainable. They set themselves tasks like “fly to the moon” or “play tennis at Wimbledon” when they haven’t yet thought to apply to astronaut school or pick up a racket. Back in 2010 I made three new years resolutions, those being:

  1. Be happy all the time
  2. No anorexia
  3. No OCD

As midnight approached I felt a surge of excitement. The moment that clock chimed (lets pretend we still live in a time where it is common to have a grandfather clock that chimes..it is a nicer image than me staring at the digital numbers on my phone waiting for 23:59 to become 00:00), my life was going to change, I was determined, and I had made a promise to myself that 2011 was going to be better. Then it happened. The clock struck midnight, and suddenly my carriage that had brought me to the party turned into a pumpkin and I lost a glass slipper!…Wait..no sorry…got mixed up in the life of someone else a little…no, what actually happened was the clock struck midnight and I felt a weight fall from my shoulders (much like a glass slipper was slipping from the sole of a future princess…)

Finally 2011 was here and I was recovered, I never had to do an OCD ritual again, I could eat and I would be smiling for the rest of my life. Looking back I can’t believe I was so deluded, but the first thing I did in 2011 was to run to the bathroom to wash my hands once, just to prove that I was in control again and could stop easily after one squirt of soap. But I didn’t stop. After the squirt had been collected in to my hands my thoughts immediately burst in and I found myself rubbing my hands together vigorously with the same urgency as I had done in 2010. I became incredibly stuck, thoughts flying so rapidly that before I knew it a significant amount of time had passed, over 100 squirts of soap had been used and the only thing I could see through the tears of despair and frustration was a basin full of bubbles. As I went back downstairs to join the others still milling around drinking champagne and watching the odd late firework banging about in the distance, I felt totally defeated. I had failed. I hadn’t even kept my resolution for 24 hours before engaging in the behaviours I told myself I was finished with, and my hopes for change fizzled out like an old sparkler. Granted I was being a bit dramatic by seeing the whole year as ruined and giving up because of one ritual, but logically because of the strict boundaries of “No” OCD, I had in essence failed, so what was the point carrying on? Clearly recovery was impossible.
It is only now looking back that I realise that the problem with my resolution and the reason I had “failed” was entirely the wording and dramatic nature of the resolution I had made. I didn’t set myself a manageable goal of trying to reduce the amount of time in the shower over the course of the year or anything reasonable, a goal that would focus on steady progress with potential slip ups yet still a continuous effort to push forward. Instead I had set myself the impossible task of transforming from a person who had been dominated by mental health problems for the last 7 years to a “normal person” in less than 7 seconds, which is pretty much like someone setting the goal of “flying to the moon” without realising all the steps it takes to get to that point.

Admittedly, I have always struggled with people telling me to “take things steady” and “take baby steps” when it comes to recovery. I am a very black and white person, either I am better or I am not, “baby steps” and little goals like “exercise for five minutes less per day” do not help me. I want total freedom from this mental health cage, not just the same cage with an ocean view.
However, my attitude to all this recently underwent a bit of refurbishment when I was glancing through pictures on Facebook and stumbled across a photograph that I posted online in 2014 to commemorate the fact that I had graduated from university, and for the first time, as I looked at the picture, taking “baby steps” made some sense.

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As you can see this picture is a comparison shot between little 4 year old me on my first day of school, and 22 year old me graduating from university after a rocky 18 years bumbling through the education system (I look pretty happy in that picture but that was because my mum took it before I found out I wasn’t allowed to keep the funny hat and gown. That was a major disappointment. The only thing I got out of that day was a piece of paper saying I had a theology degree. Who the hell wants that? I didn’t go to university to be educated, I went for the damn hat!)

Looking at these pictures it is very black and white. In one I have a degree (and a marvellous hat), and in the other, I have no degree (and no hat. 4 year old Katie had a hard life). That said, though there is a stark difference in achievement between those two pictures, it isn’t because I made a grand resolution at the age of 4 that changed my life in a second. When I was 4, the thought of getting a degree one day had not entered my mind.
Imagine if someone went back in time now, found little 4 year old me and said “go and get a degree in theology this year”. I would probably have cried (and asked what the hell theology was). When I was 4 there was no way I could just go off and get a degree. I had birthday parties to plan for my teddy bears, letters to write to Santa and hopscotch competitions to attend! I couldn’t tie my shoes yet let alone write essays on Saint Thomas Aquinas or Augustine of Hippo (genuine name…Hippo…it has been years but I am still amused), so setting that goal for me at age four would have been overly ambitious and basically would have set me up to fail.
Had this time travelling person told me to go to school that day however instead of getting a degree right then and there, I would have probably looked at them, nodded and then got on with it. When doing so I wouldn’t have realised that me turning up for a morning of finger painting was actually the first part of my journey to that oh so lovely yet tragically temporary hat (and a degree I am now stuck with forever), but it was. Without achieving all those little steps in-between, the sports days, the story books and the words of wisdom over the years, I would never have got that degree (actually maybe cancel the sports day bit..I don’t think they were particularly important…).

My 2010 new years resolutions to totally recover in the blink of an eye then, were basically the equivalent of me telling 4 year old Katie to go and get a degree before the little tike had learned to read, and it is in realising this that I can see the value in making new years resolutions, as long as they are the baby steps to get you to your goal rather than a leap to success that no Olympic long jumper could make even with a springboard.
If you want to set yourself a resolution for 2017, make a resolution that you can do over time, that allows for mistakes and gradual progress rather than instantaneous results. If you want to recover completely from OCD, make your goal to try and reduced the number of times you get caught in rituals over the course of the year. If you want to recover from depression don’t set the goal of being happy all the time, simply think about the things that could one day make you happy and go out trying to achieve them, even if that goal is just phoning up to enquire about a course. It is the same with progress in eating disorder behaviours as well as any other mental health condition, and though admittedly it takes a lot longer than the midnight miracle method I wished for in 2010, I think it is the only way to make it through this journey.

My hope in life is that one day I will be able to take a picture as someone who is no longer struggling with mental illness and to see it alongside that 4 year old me as a sign of how far I have come in ways other than education, and working towards that is my goal for the next twelve months. 2017 is not going to be “my year”, the year I change, recover totally and get a brand new life, but it is another year in which I will continue my 2016 resolution of doing all I can, listening to professionals, talking and attending all appointments, to one day make that massive goal of recovery. Taking my medication this morning has not made me better, but hopefully it is a baby step along the way.

Happy New Year everyone x

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How To Get Through New Year’s Eve When You Have Mental Health Problems

If you are one of those people who really struggles around Christmas time what with all the anxiety of social interaction, disruptions to routine, pressure to be “merry” and bountiful buffets of sausage rolls and Christmas pudding…THEN CONGRATULATIONS!
If you are reading this that means it is now Boxing Day and the bulk of Christmas is over for another year (except for Boxing Day obviously but if you struggle to manage that then my advice is to hide away from everyone in a box and say that you are celebrating the holiday in the “literal sense”).
So hooray for you mentally ill winter holiday fearing person! You don’t have to go through the celebratory stress anymore! You can pack the tinsel and paper hats away now, sit back and relax into your usual routine and …wait…I have just been told that celebrations are not actually over…apparently we still have New Year’s Eve to get through…the celebration with yet more social interaction, overt displays of happiness, buffets (albeit with slightly stale Christmas pudding by now) and crowds of people disrupting day to day life…ah…well this is awkward..sorry about that…seriously who put these two holidays so close together? This is just too much pressure for the already anxious around the world! Next year I am moving to Beijing to celebrate new year in late January/February with the Chinese…

Now, with New Year, we are all forced once again to face many of the fears we already had to deal with at Christmas (aka the aforementioned necessity to be jolly and crowds of strangers/family members). However there is also an added extra stress with New Years, that being the obsessive need to reflect upon the past twelve months whether we like it or not.
For some people, with or without mental health problems, this can be a pleasant experience and the stroll down memory lane can be a nostalgic jaunt lit by sunlight and rainbows. If that is the case then that is fantastic and jolly good on you if you are finding yourself in that situation. All too often though, memory lane can be a dirty back alley scattered with garbage bags of bad days and regret that you really wish the bin men would hurry up and remove. Everyone has bad days (even Mr Happy from the Mr Men books…they just didn’t publish that story), but at New Year for some reason we don’t just look back at those bad days feeling pleased that they are over, rather we look back feeling guilty and ashamed that they happened at all and all the things that we were unable to achieve because of them.

If you have a Facebook or Instagram account it is likely that the next week or so will see an onslaught of collages uploaded displaying all the happy times people want to remember of 2016 and that is great. I love seeing all the happiness the year has brought to my friends and all of the things they have achieved. Lord knows I would be unhappy were they to have had terrible years, yet the issue with these collages is the compulsion we feel to compare our lives to them and the collages in our heads.
Many of these collages for example will involve things like images of new high end jobs, new houses, weddings and holidays abroad. I think this is hard for anyone (I know a lot of “sane” people who find New Year difficult for this reason too), but the difficult thing when you are struggling with a mental health problem is that you are more likely not to have done these things not because you didn’t have the opportunities, but because your mental health physically prevented you from reaching them. I know being mentally ill is called having a “mental disability” when I have to fill out forms or applications, yet still I think it is easy to forget just how disabling these mental health problems can be, how dramatic the impact they have on lifestyle.

My mental health is so unpredictable and takes up so much of my time that I am unable to hold down a regular “serious” job. For this reason I do not have an income or any money to rent a room in someone’s shed let alone buy a house, and unfortunately in my life mental health problems have been the ruin of all previous romantic relationships (either that or my funny looking face of course) let alone marriages/weddings. In terms of the rigid nature of my OCD rituals, fear of contamination and my anorexia driven inability to eat outside of my house, I also cannot travel on holidays in my own country never mind abroad. There is probably a very lyrical way to express how this feels, but in summary, it sucks.
This year two of my best friends went to Greece and I would have loved to have gone with them, but it was simply out of the question if thinking realistically. Seeing photos of people on holiday or abroad building orphanages in faraway lands, happily married or running their own company then can make you feel inferior, a feeling that is often exacerbated by the common question of “how was your year?”

In comparison to many people, looking back at my year you could say that I have achieved nothing. I haven’t moved up the career ladder or taken a step onto the property ladder (the pressure to climb ladders these days is OVERWHELMING), and I haven’t found the love of my life or helped build a medical centre in Africa which will help save the lives of orphans in need of urgent treatment. If I look at it bleakly, I have simply carried out another 365 days of rituals that achieve nothing outside of the confines of my head, been hospitalised against my will again and basically carried out the same year in year out routine that I have rehearsed every year for the past decade. So what was the point? What did I achieve? Well, this is where I think all us marbleless folk need to give ourselves a bit of a break and not think about the things we didn’t do, but realise the value in all the little things we did do. If you are looking back at 2016 and are feeling that you have made no progress or step advancing you on your journey through life, I can guarantee you are wrong.
The word achievement is not limited to describing extravagant weddings, a three piece suite in your new lounge or a bungee jump across a beautiful landscape in New Zealand. An achievement can be anything.
Ask yourself, this year did you ever get out of bed even on a day you really didn’t feel able to face the world? WELL DONE YOU. Did you speak to a fellow human being even though your stomach was a mass of churning social anxiety? FANTASTIC. Did you put on clothes? Eat Breakfast? Open a door or do any little thing, despite fear in your heart and a head screaming all it could to prevent you from doing so. WHAT A CHAMPION YOU ARE. What a mental illness fighting warrior of epic proportions. What an achievement.

If you have simply managed to keep yourself alive, survive and make it through another 365 days with a disability then THAT is something worth celebrating and something for which you should be incredibly proud, even if you can’t exactly take a photo of that achievement to whack up on Facebook.
If you are reading this it is literally impossible for you to claim that you have had another year wasted or another year of not doing anything. Even if you come back at me with “I haven’t kept myself alive, I am in hospital/being held against my will with staff who are doing that for me”, I can come back at you and say without any doubt that you have achieved something because you are reading these words. Somehow you have found the strength to go onto the internet, click a link and made the decision to read it, and in my eyes, that is pretty damn fantastic. Also, if you are reading this, you have achieved the task of making me smile by listening to my nonsense and make me feel less alone, so that is two brilliant things right there in the past five minutes.

New Year’s Eve is of course still going to be difficult and no matter what I say, the parties, the crowds and the reflection of the past 12 months is going to be a challenge. Nevertheless, if all you have done is wake up today, I would say you have at least one good thing to reflect on rather than feel ashamed or guilty. When those collages pop up on social media, remember that you have every right to be very proud of yourselves, as I know I certainly am. Take care fellow warriors, I will speak to you in 2017 and again we will get through that year together. Stay safe and take care,

All my love, best wishes, hugs and Happy New Year vibes

Katie – Born Without Marbles xxx

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