Reflecting on the last year
We’re almost halfway through 2021 and I haven’t posted anything since December last year. I’ll be honest; I’ve had nothing to write about of any substance. There’s so much more I could write about on this blog, but I’ve simply not had the inspiration, nor have I given myself the time to sit down and reflect on what’s been quite frankly a manic twelve months. More recently, I’ve been languishing – something I’ll come on to later.
Throughout the last year I’ve been working full-time as a doctor in A&E helping fight this virus on the front line. It’s been exhausting. I’ve ridden the waves as they came one after the other, feeling the brunt of the pandemic at the hospital front door. I’ve treated some awfully sick patients, many of whom sadly didn’t make it out of the hospital alive. I caught the virus last May and thankfully came out the other side unscathed. The same can’t be said for many of my colleagues who still live with the symptoms and lasting effects of the virus. Not to mention those, and in particular, NHS workers, who lost their lives as a result of fighting Covid-19.
At one point it felt like Covid was the only thing I could think about. I lived and breathed it for a long time. Covid felt tangible yet couldn’t be disposed of; it lingered in the air like a foul stench. But life went on and people got sick regardless of whether they had the virus or not. Heart attacks still happened, strokes still occurred, and people’s mental well-being was at breaking point. I saw a lot of people in acute mental health crises, reflected by a rise in attendances of self harm and intentional overdoses. I remember breaking down in tears after trying, and failing, to resuscitate a young woman who had intentionally inhaled a toxic level of cooking gas. I can still remember the mother screaming for her child after we ceased resuscitation and she was brought in to say her goodbyes. I went into the doctor’s office and immediately burst into floods of tears. I took a couple of minutes to compose myself again, went back into the department and saw a lady complaining of chronic back pain. That was a tough night for me, but I got through it. The young patient in resus sadly didn’t.
Despite all of this, I’ve got an awful lot to be thankful for. My family has been well, my mental health has been stable and I started therapy this year. I also bought my first house and am enjoying the responsibilities of being a semi-fledged adult. It’s been over a year now since my last relapse. I’ve remained on an even keel throughout the year where triggers and early warning signs have been few and far between. I’ve still had periods of insomnia and disturbed sleep, but I’ve been able to recognise these moments very early and act straight away. My mood has fluctuated up and down, but nothing I couldn’t tether.
A “meh” state of mind
All in all I’ve been good, but not great. The thing is, I’ve recently looked back on the last several months and thought, “What actually happened there? How did I get to this point and not remember much of it?” Almost as if I’d been in cruise control, foot off the pedal and peering through a foggy windshield. Surviving but not thriving. Living but not relishing those subtly beautiful moments in life. Shutting myself off to friends and family. As I’m writing now, I feel as if I’m coming out of that ‘cruise control’ state of mind and I’m starting to notice the subtle beauty of my surroundings again. Be that music I’m listening to, speaking to a family member on the phone or meeting up with a close friend. I’ve also started back at my local gym and pool – that has done wonders for my mental health. I feel revitalised and happier.
I spoke to my older brother about how I was feeling recently, and he told me it sounded like I had been languishing, I wasn’t depressed, or at least didn’t feel depressed. I certainly can’t remember a point where I was particularly sad, helpless or suicidal. I was just apathetic to life and in a constant state of mental inertia. I was still functioning as normal – eating, drinking and looking after all of my basic functions. I just wasn’t particularly mindful of what I was consuming, nor was I exercising much. I almost certainly gained weight. I was still going to work, clerking patients and making my way through the day. I just wasn’t making any mental progress, talking little about my thoughts and feelings or reflecting on my emotions. I was going home to bed at the end of my shift with little to no consideration for the day that had passed. My mind was sitting on a cloud of nothingness and everything was simply “meh”.
Bipolar, driving and flourishing
Considering the fact I have a mood disorder, experiencing fluctuating mood states from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, – this particular “meh” mindset is by far the hardest to recognise. It’s also the most difficult to act upon and snap out of. Languishing is insidious, and because it doesn’t have a detrimental effect on my life – i.e. doesn’t cause me to be psychotic or suicidal, months can pass where I’m feeling “meh” before I’m truly able to reflect on what’s happened and start living again.
I’ve trained myself to recognise triggers and symptoms associated with deteriorating mental health – also known as early warning signs. I’m very much in tune with my mood and thoughts and can act quickly if I see a slight deviation. If my mind is slowing down, or I’m becoming low in mood, I’m usually capable of managing it – pushing down on the pedal a little harder until my mood is back to within normal parameters. Likewise if I’m going too fast, or my mood is elevated and I clock it early, I ease off the accelerator and take it down a gear.
When I’m languishing, I’m in cruise control. I’m zoned out. I’m moving steadily down the road. My hands are on the wheel, but they don’t move. The radio is on but I’m not paying much attention to it. It’s safe, but it’s not really much of a ‘drive’. Because it’s safe, there’s no incentive to deviate or step out of this frame of mind.
As it stands now, I feel much more in control of what’s happening. I’m more acutely aware and in tune with my surroundings. The windows are down and I feel the cool breeze hitting my face; I’m singing along to the music on the radio; my coffee tastes good again. I’m driving towards a destination and I feel alive again. You could say I made a conscious effort to get to this point, but there wasn’t an individual aspect of my lifestyle I made an adjustment to. There were lots of small changes I made, and I’m still making them. From deciding to eat more fruit and veg, to picking up the phone and calling a loved one. From starting back at the gym to putting a little less cereal in my bowl each morning. From making my bed every day to ensuring my bag is packed for work in time.
I’m doing more activities and yet I have more energy. The world is still going round and yet I’m more mindful of my surroundings. I’m starting to appreciate the small bites of happiness in life. I’m more positive, joyful and friendly.
It turns out it’s not just me
Working and fighting through the pandemic I became pretty exhausted, both mentally and physically. Like many who were battle fatigued, I lacked energy moving into the new year. I’m not just talking about healthcare staff and other key workers who looked Covid in the face and said “bring it on”. I’m talking about the vast majority of the population who had to fight their own battles this year. People dealt with loneliness, domestic abuse, and grief. Many simply struggled with what felt like an endlessly uphill war of attrition. Everyone fought. Lots of people lost their lives. 2021 was supposed to be a new year with fresh prospects and aspirations. But as it turned out, I like many, moved into 2021 just content with being alive. Moving through the first half of this year in the “meh” state of mind seemed to be the status quo.
Languishing is now said to be the defining mood for 2021. My brother mentioned an article in the New York Times about languishing and what you can do about it. It’s very insightful and well worth a read. Having read and listened to the article, I felt quite taken aback and found myself constantly nodding in agreement. It’s fascinating. Learning about languishing has helped me compartmentalise aspects of my life that are almost inevitable. It’s helped me validate mental states that I’ve previously put down to sub-clinical depression. Having this insight now will hopefully allow me to flourish a bit when previously I’ve just been surviving. Rather than my attitude being just “meh”, it can now be a bit more “hell yeah!”.