The Difficulty Of Concentrating When You Have Mental Health Problems


Today is a good day for writing a blog. It is raining outside which puts any ideas of outdoor activity out of the window, my Dad is listening to classical music in the lounge which is making me feel rather intelligent (Ok I am in a different room but in my opinion if you can hear a violin playing somewhere it means you are somewhat sophisticated), and my cup of tea is at the perfect drinking temperature. The conditions couldn’t be better and thus I am making the most of them to write this post all about…Oooh I wonder what my parents are having for dinner…I hope they don’t use my special spoon…or touch my courgettes…Sorry what was I saying? Ah yes! A post about the difficulty of concentrating on ANYTHING when you are struggling with mental health problems.

I have struggled with concentrating on things ever since I first got ill, but recently the problem has been getting frustratingly worse.The other day I was watching a film, I was staring right at the screen with no background noise or distractions, yet still after 45 minutes I realised that despite being as attentive as possible, I had no idea what was going on or who any of the characters were. In my opinion the plot was simply far too complicated and convoluted with twists and turns I was unable to follow, so I switched it off in annoyance. If the film had been something with multiple realities like Inception or The Matrix, I would have been a little more forgiving of my brain’s inability to understand but this was not Inception or The Matrix. It was Winnie the Pooh, aka a film that has little more plot to understand than “these animals are living in a wood and that yellow bear in the red t-shirt really likes honey”. It isn’t even as if the characters look anything alike, one is a freaking piglet whilst another is a donkey who is clinically depressed and in need of some serious therapy, yet to me they all blended into one, just as all characters do when I watch anything on TV.

It is the same with books. No matter how simple the book, how “easy to follow” the storyline, you can guarantee that I will not be able to concentrate or focus long enough to appreciate it properly and lately I find myself having to read the same pages over and over again before I can gleam any sense or meaning in them. Seriously it could be one of the Mr Men or Little Miss books and I will have to read a page a good ten times to grasp the facts that Little Miss Naughty is:
1. Purple
2. In need of an ASBO (for readers not in the UK an ASBO stands for “anti social behaviour order” which is what the police give you when you have been, as the main character in the aforementioned book is, “rather naughty”/a general nuisance).

With books and films this inability to concentrate isn’t too bad because at least with a film or a book you can wind back the DVD or flip to the previous page to see what you missed whilst your brain was elsewhere. In real life however, you cannot just rewind the bits you missed because people tend to only say things once no matter how hard you point a remote control at them.
I have been thinking about this a lot recently with the summer exam season coming up because I remember being in school and sitting in lessons desperate to get educated but unable to focus or concentrate long enough to know what lesson I was in. Indeed when I first started struggling with mental health problems my grades went down and it made me feel that I must be stupid, when really it was because it is incredibly hard to focus on the world around you when your brain is on fire.

It even happens to me in therapy sessions where we are talking about what is going on in my brain rather than the teleological argument or the significance of the green light in The Great Gatsby (exam hint – it is really significant). The other day I came out of a full hour session and despite listening closely the entire time, as I left, the only thing I could remember was that my therapist had mentioned that she once nearly drove into a cow. I thought this over and over all the way home and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how we had got onto that topic or indeed how it had been relevant and what help I was supposed to have gathered from it.
Since then I asked my therapist about the “I nearly drove into a cow” incident and I have learned that it was a story about how she nearly drove into a cow at a certain bend in a road and now always slows down for that bend because she associates that bend with wandering cattle, thus making a point about how the brain interprets things and makes permanent links from one off events e.g. between cows and this bend in the road…I think that was the point anyway…or was it that she really liked cows…REGARDLESS of the point she was very understanding, as always, of my inability to concentrate so I wasn’t embarrassed about admitting that our previous session had been a total blur to me, but in real life situations if you keep asking people to repeat things you tend to look rather rude or like you are not concentrating hard enough.

In actual fact the problem isn’t at all to do with how much effort you are putting in or how attentive you are and is all about the mental illness that is wreaking havoc behind your eyeballs.
For example when I am watching a film, lets say Winnie the Pooh, my eyes are watching the yellow bear in the red t-shirt and my ears are hearing something about honey. The information from the screen goes through my eyes and ears, but then when it gets to the place where the brain is supposed to collect the information and take it to the department of comprehension, none of the little brain people are there to pick up the parcel because they are off doing other things. In one lobe OCD is counting the number of breaths I am taking and insisting that some kind of disaster is about to happen because I am sitting a little too far to the left,. A little further along anorexia is dashing about with a calculator, calculating the number of calories in 200g of courgette for the millionth time even though the answer is always the same, and yelling that I should start doing 1000 star jumps incase I wrongly measured the courgettes earlier and accidentally ate an extra gram. Next there is depression generally crying and making everything a bit soggy, telling me that it will only shut up if I kill myself because the sadness will never end, and then finally BPD is there bellowing that all my friends hate me, want to leave and that I should probably text them all urgently begging for forgiveness, texts that, if not replied to within 30 seconds, mean they have probably all fled the country to get away from me.
For people who maybe don’t understand what all those mental health things can feel like when they are all going off at the same time, listening to a friend over a cup of tea is sort of the equivalent of trying to concentrate on a mouse standing on a stage who is whispering the works of Shakespeare, with the Philharmonic Orchestra standing next to you belting out Vivaldi’s four seasons whilst your head is being pecked at by vultures, expired eggs are being thrust under your nose, there is a Scotch Bonnet chilli pepper on your tongue and a Lush employee is vigorously lathering your body with handfuls of body butter. (Again for people who do not live in the UK, “Lush” is a lovely shop against animal testing, that sells things to use in the bathroom and whose employees are highly trained in moisturising anything that moves whether that thing wants to be moisturised or not).
How is ANYONE expected to concentrate when all of that is going on?

If, since becoming mentally ill, you have suddenly become incapable of concentrating at work or in school, I hope you know that, as I have demonstrated, it is not because you are stupid and is most likely to do with the mental health problems you have raging around inside you, so please give yourself a break. Obviously it is still important to work hard, listen in lessons or to friends and try to concentrate on the things you should be concentrating on, but if you can’t don’t beat yourself up about it and don’t be afraid to take breaks and try doing things on a day where your head is perhaps a little quieter/the philharmonic orchestra in my analogy are missing a few of its trumpets.
You often hear people accuse people they don’t think are listening of being “day dreaming”, but sometimes, when mental health problems really get hold of you, it is more likely you will feel as if you are stuck in a nightmare.

Take care everyone x


An Important Reminder For People Struggling With Mental Health Problems During Exam Season

Ah summer, a wonderful time of sunshine, drinks with umbrellas (as we all know if anyone needs a device to keep something dry it is a glass of liquid), and, less wonderfully, exams. No matter what kind of exam is being thrown at you, whether it be a GCSE, A-level, university finals or your N.E.W.T’s at Hogwarts, I think we can all agree that exams suck and are a very stressful part of the year for everyone involved, especially people with mental health problems who are pretty stocked up on stress and need no exam boards adding to it. If you have exams coming up I can guarantee you have been told how important they are by teachers and lecturers and if you are anything like me you will feel that they are the most important things in the world, but I want to provide an alternative voice to all that stress and pressure and let you know that in the grand scheme of things, exams and other education related worries are not important. Now I know what you are thinking, “why should I listen to a weirdo on the internet when I have educated officials telling me that these exams are vital to my future happiness?”. Well dear reader, because I am going to prove my point with an analogy using the absolute best thing about summer, ice-cream, and if that doesn’t get me credibility then I don’t know what will.

For the purpose of this post I would like you to imagine an ice cream cone. That empty cone represents your physical health, no emotions whatever, just the heart beating oxygen to carbon dioxide basics of being alive. Now add a scoop of ice cream to that cone (one involving chocolate or peanut butter preferably but I suppose you could use any flavour for your metaphorical ice cream…just not rum and raisin because that is nasty). That scoop of ice cream is your mental health, stress levels, emotional stability, any brain activity that involves quality of life, pain or pleasure, and makes you different from the empty ice cream cone of the amoeba. Now add a cherry to that ice cream cone. That cherry is exams/good results/fantastic education stuff in general.

If you went to an ice cream van in the real world and asked for an ice cream, you would expect at least a cone with a scoop of ice cream in. A cone is fine but it is worth nothing without the ice cream and without the cone the ice cream would have no “body” to chill in (literally). To be worth having, you need both the cone and the ice cream. Having a cherry added on the top would be nice, but without the ice cream and the cone it is pointless. Without those key components you just have a random cherry floating in the air and that is useless in terms of the ice cream experience (otherwise known as “life”). Exams alone are that useless floating cherry.

The most important things to focus on and look after throughout life, exams and education in whatever form, are your physical and mental health, because if you don’t have either of those things then exams have nothing to sit on.
When I was doing my A-levels I was absolutely terrified and my exams literally became a life or death situation. My head was compressed under so much pressure and my brain had made some kind of OCD rigid deal that I had to get straight A*’s or kill myself. No other grade would give me “permission to live”, not even an A which is an incredible grade to get as it is. My anxiety and OCD drive made a life or death situation out of “a star” and you know what that star is? IT IS JUST AN ASTERISK. IT IS PUNCTUATION. It is not the be all and end all goal of life, this mystical magical holy relic to be chased to the end of time. Nope. Look here is one now *. And another one *. Is “*” and therefore any grade worth the pressure and insanity placed upon exams?

The stress of exams, grades and dedicating all of your energy to revision is like chasing a floating cherry without the cone and ice cream needed to support it. If education is causing so much stress that your anxiety is out of control, if you are revising so much that you are “not having time to eat”, then that is not OK. At university I spent my entire time chasing that illusive floating cherry (otherwise known as “a first”). I read books obsessively, didn’t sleep, took notes on things with unnecessary detail and precision. Revision sheets were awash with bubble letters that I took hours colouring in using the order of colours in the rainbow. I had to get a first so everything had to be perfect, but I was so busy colour co-ordinating titles that I didn’t look after the cone or the ice cream and eventually everything fell down with nothing there to support it. I never took my final exams at university, I never wrote my dissertation or got the resulting “dissertation picture”, because I was in hospital. Thankfully I had the most amazing tutor and team at university so I was still able to graduate. Did I get a first? No. Has having a “2:1” rather than a first changed my life in any way? No. Do you know how often I get asked about my degree or A-level grades? How often someone asks to admire my colour co-ordinated revision notes with obsessively neat handwriting and bubble letters? Never, because in the real world none of it matters, what really matters is keeping yourself alive and able to function.
When you are in school I know that education feels like the world and grades are the tip of the mountain in importance, but when you leave school you realise that that mountain was just a mole hill and the real important mountains in life are actually living your life both physically and, hopefully, with some mental stability or quality that make it worth it. Getting an education or a dissertation picture are things in life, but they are not the ONLY things.

Obviously I am not telling you not to bother with revision, if you can handle it then that is great and of course you should do your best in exams, but you shouldn’t sacrifice your emotional or physical wellbeing to achieve, catch a cherry that is useless without the cone and ice cream to balance it on. An earlier hospitalisation during sixth form meant I had to go back a year in school so I did my A-levels a year late. Again it seemed like the biggest deal in the world, but I needed that time in hospital and that time out and eventually I got my exams, Ok they were a little late, but the only difference between my certificates and the ones my initial year received was the date. Also, I actually made loads of new friends in my new year, so in retrospect going back a year was not only vital but actually gave me some positive experiences with people I wouldn’t have met had I forced myself through exams the first time. Especially if I had died in the attempt.

In short, education can wait. Education can be done any time if needs be, but what cannot wait or be done at any time is keeping yourself alive and looking after your health. If you need to take time out, do it. Lower the pressure and expectations for grades. In short, give yourself a break, give yourself time to breathe. If you have exams and revision this summer then I wish you the best of luck and hope they go brilliantly, just please remember to look after that cone and scoop of ice cream first, and don’t kill yourself over a floating cherry that in the grand scheme of things matters nowhere near as much as the ice cream.

Ice cream