Mental Health

Learning on the Run: 2017 Race to the Stones

Avebury 1

CN: anxiety, suicidal ideation

Every time you run an ultramarathon you learn something new about yourself. And the further you go, and the slower you go, the more you are likely to learn. Which means, at least on the second score, I should be a genius by now.

This was my third Race to the Stones, a 100 kilometre run along the Ridgeway. The first time, as I guess is the case for most newbies, the main thing I learned was that I could do it. I also learned that for me the oft-repeated dictum that your body can do remarkable things but the battle is to persuade your mind really doesn’t hold true. My threshold is what my body will do before caving in completely. I already sort of knew that from spending my late 20s powerlifting, living every workout on the very edge of what was physically dangerous. And I knew it from decades of staying alive through mental illness when it would have been so much easier to give in to the desperate desire to be dead.

Last year I learned something surprising. I am not particularly good at lots of things. And at some things I’m not too shabby. But in all things I am absurdly competitive. I had assumed that competitiveness would override anything, but when it turned out Ann was seriously ill mid race, I didn’t think twice about stopping to make sure she was taken care of. Running teaches you about your values, about where your boundaries lie, and it can often surprise you. A similar thing happened during training last summer when I found myself clambering into the Thames to pull out a sheep who’d ended up grazing too close to the edge. I’ve also learned that this border-case altruism most definitely doesn’t extend to swapping pleasantries with other runners while out on the trails – stories afterwards absolutely, but small talk is as unpleasant for the neurodivergent on the trails as off – and has the potential to utterly ruin an experience.

So what did I learn from this year’s Race to the Stones? Well, this year’s race was very much a dance of mind and body, flesh and spirit, learning a great deal about how my corpsely self functions, about the way life and our living of it is not illuminated by metaphor but *is* a metaphor. And I learned more than I have ever done in one concentrated burst about flow.

It has been a very difficult year for training, but for the first time I can remember, the month leading up to the race I was able to put in four weeks of uninterrupted training without any injury. And in the race itself it was clear before long that I was a lot stronger than I have been in the past. A bit heavier, yes (I’m working on that, and losing weight will be key to staying injury free), but with a much stronger core, and that made a big difference to a lot of the more technical parts of the course where I have struggled a lot before.

The Ridgeway is beautiful, and looking at the profile, it’s a pretty gentle place to run. In practice, a combination of vehicle access and soil type means that long stretches are rounded narrow single track consisting of chalk baked like cement with protruding flint. You literally have to watch every foot placement, constantly making tiny – and not so tiny – adjustments to your stride. This is exhausting mentally, but it also places massive strain on your ligaments and tendons, and on muscles like you adductors and abductors that see very little action when it comes to jogging along on a well-surfaced road.

But this year I’ve been working a lot on my core, thanks to Ann’s brilliant, simple tip of doing one leg balances every day – a perfect way to occupy those awkward minutes waiting for the bus. The result has been that, as if by magic, making those adjustments to foot position is now something I can do from the core, sparing my muscles and joints. And it’s had the greatest effect of all on some wonderful downhill paths, such as the root-strewn section of Grim’s Ditch, and a previously vicious quarter mile of single track coming down into Swyncombe, where I can now just open up completely and take full advantage of gravity. And that was the first thing I noticed – the transformative effect of being able to let go of all control completely, legs flying without encumbrance, heart rate never rising so long as the descent continues. The feeling of fluidity – of, literally, feeling that one has become a liquid sliding over the surface of the earth, is utterly magical, and add the side to side movement of those ever changing foot placements and it feels as though one is dancing with the earth.

A second effect of a stronger core and greater residual fitness is the ability to run out of trouble. We have had a warm, dry spring and the Ridgeway has been consistently parched. So, with the forecast showing a beautiful cool overcast day, I set out in road shoes to be gentle on my feet for the tarmaced stretches. But of course the forecast was wrong. The race began with 6 hours of steady rain (given that I am sitting typing this in a library not a police cell I can only imagine that my thoughts towards weather forecasters were muttered under my breath throughout that period). It wasn’t long before parts of the course were becoming like an ice rink. But while this required a sense of permanent at least semi watchfulness, I never felt in danger of slipping and sliding the way I have done in the past. Whenever the surface was a little too sketchy I was able to run my way out of trouble, light, skipping strides creating a contact less prone to losing grip.

So the actual experience of running was different. And that, in turn, changed my thoughts as I ran. There were more times when I was able simply to enjoy the pleasure of moving, of body and nature in contact, dancing together.

My second experience was putting to the test a piece of research I had always felt rang true, one which goes against one of the fundamental tenets of ultramarathon advice. The advice goes to start slow. Really slow, so you don’t blow up and crash out. The problem is while that might work for top athletes, as so often most of us reading the advice aren’t top athletes. And I read a great piece last year that showed you’re far better going out quicker – if you’re in the part of the pack I occupy (I finished Race to the Stones 696th out of 961 non-stoppers) you’ll end up at a crawl however you start, so you might as well bank some quick miles.

So I set out at a pace I knew from training I could sustain for more than 30 kilometres and decided to see how far it would take me. “Keep going till you blow up, then hold on.” I can’t quite understand why I have never formulated it as a principle before. It’s something I’ve applied to pretty much every area of my life where I’ve had any kind of success, yet it runs so counter to what we are told by coaches and memes and podcasts and “those who know” again and again. Which is another reason I need to get on and write my self-improvement for neurodivergents book.

The mantra ran through my head on a loop (when I wasn’t cursing meteorologists), and in particular I thought of one of my great inspirations, Anna Frost, who applied the same approach to her first hundred mile race, going out hartd to get as much done as she could before she hit the wall – only for her the wall never did come. She just won. In a very fast time.

Of course, I’m no Anna Frost so I did hit the wall, at about kilometre 60. But still, I managed to see 10 kilometres more of the course in daylight than I had done before, despite this year’s start being an hour and a half later tI did hang on, at a pace not really slower than when I had gone out more “sensibly”. For the last 30 kilometres at least my thought was simple – “I don’t know how I am going to finish this, but I know that I am.” Of course, I did know – one foot in front of the other and repeat. It’s that simple.

And here’s the important thing about that. Sometimes the cautious approach really is best. Sometimes you need to pace yourself and leave energy in the tank to get you through the last gruelling hours of a challenge. Bt sometimes it’s not, and unless you’ve thrown everything you have at something and then clung on for dear life when you’ve fallen off the cliff – how will you ever know? We hear a lot that life is a marathon not a sprint, but what the hell kind of philosophy is it to make sure you hit your 80th birthday with plenty of fuel in the tank just to be sure you cross the line strong? Besides which we also now know that often the best tactic in a marathon is to go out strong and hold on.

Finally, I learned more about flow. Running is perfect for achieving flow in different ways. On the road, with a sure footing, one can let one’s legs tick over metronomically while one’s mind finds its own rhythms. And on the trail, one is so aware of every foot placement, so focused on each root and rock that one loses oneself completely in one moment after the next.

We hear a lot about flow these days, about the importance, for example, of finding flow in our work, or a hobby. It is often portrayed as the ultimate hipster accessory, an indulgence for the lucky and entitled. But for me it has always been so much more than that. It has been a survival mechanism. When I’m ill, life is petty much about survival in the face of the overwhelming urge to die. It’s all about section two of the lessons learned here, one foot in front of the other and repeat.

But when I’m not ill with depression or mania, there is nothing to mask the underlying state of chronic anxiety. Living with anxiety means living in constant fear. I would describe it most accurately, I think, as living face to the sky with one’s neck upon the block, waiting for the axe to fall. Not knowing when, just knowing that it will. It is all-consuming. One’s life is spent endlessly playing out the different scripts that end with the fall of the axe. And there is never a script that ends any other way. Not ever. Not one. For me, the simplest everyday scenarios all end with my own death or, more often, my wife’s. Any situation that involves contact with, or even proximity to, another human being will end its trail of impeccable logic with death, despair, the loss of everything. I will sleep in an exhausted but delirious relief that I have avoided the axe for another day – but always knowing that the slightest noise in the night could restart the script.

Flow offers precious moments without anxiety. It absorbs so much of the self that there is nothing left over for fear. Worryingly, this is the same function that can be served by intense pain, which is one reason self-harm is one of anxiety’s closer companions. It is why I have never understood the “don’t take it too far” or the “why do you have to do everything to extremes?” voices that ostensibly demonstrate concern. Simple. Because it is only at the very edge cases of or human endeavour that we can find flow, and a few moments’ respite from the flash of the axe about to fall.

What I realised as I ran was that, again, so much of the advice we commonly receive is wrong. We should not be looking to make tiny pockets of flow in busy lives. That is the flow of hipsterism, of indulgence. Valuable, yes, of course. But possible? Not for so many. And its absence a source of easy reprosch for those who would rather blame the despair on the deficiency of the despairing than create a world that would minimize it. Far better to devote ourselves to carving out large chunks of uninterrupted time in people’s lives for them to find true flow, whether or not they find it alone under the stars on the trail.

 

 

 

 

Dressed for Success

Before I start, may I ask you for a moment of your time. If you have looked around you will know I am researching creativity and working on tools and systems to help people who have found themselves cut off from a creative life unlock their potential. The first step on that trail is to conduct several surveys, of which the first is now live. It will take 10  minutes and you should have a lot of fun. You can find it here. Thank you!

As you know, I have been reading Tim Harford’s wonderful book Messy this week. One of the chapters that induced prim air-punching was the chapter on work spaces. And yet, despite the fact he proclaims that what you have on your desk is none of anyone else’s damn business, the thing he fails to mention is the one thing that has held me back the most in my quest for “real” employment, and where I feel the greatest sense of relief and, almost literally, expanding brain capacity and all-around performance bandwidth the moment I enter “creative me” land. And that’s the subject of clothing.

Talking about poetry at Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival, able to give 100% of myself to what I am saying because I feel comfortable.

Talking about poetry at Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival, able to give 100% of myself to what I am saying because I feel comfortable.

These days, we’re familiar with the anecdotes about Steve Jobs and his black sweaters, or Mark Zuckerberg only ever wearing grey T shirts because that way he never has to think about what to wear. Sadly, we are also familiar with stories of outrageous sexist dress codes, of women being forced to mutilate their feet in the belief that it  is an essential part of doing their job.

The problem is the same one we see played out again and again in the confusing and arbitrary codes of the workplace. What we see in the powerful as quirk and eccentricity we see in the workers’ corpus as disobedient and disrespectful. One is lauded for breaking the rules, the other required to keep them if they want to keep their job. And by rules, I don’t mean maintaining customer confidentiality, billing in a timely and transparent fashion, or adhering to the finest tolerances in manufacturing. I mean working from home. I mean what you wear day to day. I mean whether you sit or stand at your desk. I mean what pictures you have on the wall.

I am intrigued to know if the things that apply to a tidy desk apply to our adherence to dress codes, namely that whether your desk is tidy or messy is not important, but whether you got to choose how it looks is. Because this is essential about autonomy, empowerment, freeing our mind for the important things and then putting us in a frame of mind where we can attack them with gusto, my intuition is that it is. And my intuition is that the reasons organisations cling to rules in the face of evidence are equally as strange.

Here I am talking to a room full of senior bankers at the launch of a policy document. Evidently the scruffy but fabulously comfortable cheap sweater rendered every seventh word in an unintelligible dialect of Esperanto.

Here I am talking to a room full of senior bankers at the launch of a policy document. Evidently the scruffy but fabulously comfortable cheap sweater rendered every seventh word in an unintelligible dialect of Esperanto.

 

Let me rewind and give some context. I have always struggled with clothes. And in many different ways. I wear clothes very hard, for one, so I tend to wear through things – seams will fall apart as soon as I put something on, fabric rub through, shoe soles crack and so on. Then there is hypersensitivity. The feel of some fabric, some cuts of clothing, some shapes of clothing causes me actual pain. And the claustrophobia from wearing clothing that clings in certain ways (strangely the opposite is true when running, when I guess my body recognises the need for compression and the need not to chafe) takes over my mind at every moment. Getting anything done requires me to find ways of functioning that work around the fact that this massive mental weight is constantly there. It goes without saying if I am wearing clothing that makes me feel like this I will not do as well as if I choose my own outfit. It got so bad with one retail job in a chain store that I had to leave the job because I literally couldn’t do anything other than try and survive with the suit I was given to wear. I have a fairly complex suite of mental health needs, which makes staying in full time work somewhat tricky – the full time work I am able to do is a long way from anything I am capable of or qualified for doing as a result. (Hence the need to stretch a brain that is on the one hand desperately impaired but on the other full of what appears to be an unusual set of abilities that constantly want to exercise themselves is met through my extramural life of mind sports, mental health campaigning, public speaking, writing and private research.) But even this limited job is extremely tough – not because of the work but because of the other things it puts my way – social interactions, being in shared spaces, the expectation of eating and drinking communally at some meetings. Each of these requires large parts of my brain I could otherwise give to my work.

And clothing is one more of those things. I don’t have to wear a suit, and I am very grateful for that. But I can’t wear the comfortable elasticated waist trousers I would wear by choice. Apparently that sends the wrong message.

And here’s where we get back to the general points about dressing for work, and why telling someone what to wear is absurd.

The people in charge know it’s a trade off. I have certainly told my bosses that. And the manager of a woman forced to wear heels that hurt her feet or a person of colour forced to unbraid their hair must know it makes work harder for them. So to do the same work as their colleagues will take more. So they are doing less for the organisation, and as individuals they are systematically being denied equal access to performance based promotion. I have certainly explained this, and you would have to be particularly blinkered not to see it. Yet the demand is still there. and that means one of two things:

  1. They believe this is a trade off that’s worth it. Because something is more important than their employees being A. happy and comfortable and B. at their most productive, efficient, and creative.
  2. They just don’t believe us. Sadly, I fear that this is still a massive problem. Especially for those of us with hidden disabilities. You only have to look at the news to see people with Crohn’s being harassed for using the disabled bathroom. And those who have not experienced sensory processing issues simply do not “get” how headphones to drown out conversational noise would help; or having a quiet space to go and eat would be anything but “being demanding”; or having flexible hours would mean you were able to be at work when you were not feeling sick from your medication. There is still too wide an assumption that those with hidden conditions are making up demands they don’t really need because people just won’t believe us. That really isn’t acceptable and we need to keep working to change it – but that’s for another post.

For now, I just want to think what those higher priorities might be, and I want to encourage all the managers out there to have a hard think about their logic if they find themselves drawn to any of them. I have come across each of these. I think each of them is highly flawed.

  1. It creates the wrong image for clients. I still haven’t understood exactly what this means. It seems to boil down to “clients expect”, but clients expect a lot of things that appear on a spectrum that runs from slightly dubious to downright unacceptable and it is the job of organisations to separate out delivering superb service from pandering to prejudicial or outdated attitudes. Arrogating responsibility for that is simply lazy.
  2. You work better when you’re dressed for the part. There are so many people who believe that the way they believe you work better at a tidy desk. The message is simple – you might think you work better one way, but you’re wrong. Some people feel this way. Others feel differently. There’s room for all.
  3. It sends the wrong image to co workers. I have seen this meant in several ways – on the one hand I’ve seen it mean it sends the message you don’t care – but for that see point 2. Personally I think giving someone the freedom to dress how they want shows you care about being the best you can more than you care about an image. I’ve seen it understood as meaning that managers who dress casually won’t be respected by their staff, or are sending an unmanagerly message. But see Zuckerberg and Jobs. Maybe it’s not that “tech companies are different” but that staff who work at Apple and Facebook care about their managers’ vision, leadership, and skills more than their clothes.

What I’m trying to say combines two elements, but they do meet to form a single point. Some people need the freedom to choose their clothing because they have a condition that requires it. But it’s never really the best way to do things to make people ask to be made an exception. It singles them out, it requires a lot of resources from the people who have fewest to spare, it formalises s sense that some people are a disproportionate burden. Fortunately, if what is true of desks is true of dress, there is an easy answer – let everyone have the autonomy to choose their own clothing. Those who like to feel smart can do so. Those who need comfort can have comfort. Those who simply need to feel they can express who they are can do just that. So long as no one is breaking health or hate rules, what is the problem?

One of the things I care about passionately is making workplaces more creative. And that also includes giving the opportunities to be creative to those who have had the doors closed. I also care about making workplaces as accessible as they can be. Because accessibility enables diversity and diversity in the workplace has been shown again and again to be good in itself. And because it’s in the interest of all organisations that when their staff are working they are able to bring their A-game. And I have this ridiculous notion that is more important than having them in a tie.

 

“Not for the likes of you”: How The Self-Improvement Industry is Failing People with Mental Ill Health

You are probably here because, among other reasons, you are, like me, ever so slightly obsessed by self-improvement books, articles, and videos. I devour self-improvement books, and I can usually pick up something from pretty much each one I read. But I also have a big problem. And with the self-improvement, how-to-succeed, be-a-successful-entrepreneur industry as a whole. A good half of what I read makes no sense to me. And that’s on a good day. On a bad day, it leaves me with a very simple message – success is not for you.

If I tell you that one in four people will share something with me this year, you will get an idea of what I mean. I have a mental health disability. Specifically, I have bipolar, though like many I have several co-morbid issues. Not all of the 1 in 4 who experience mental ill health every year will have a disability. A lot will, though. And that’s the thing. For a condition to constitute a disability in law, it has to have a long term impact on your day to day functioning.

Talking at the launch of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute's report "Seeing Through The Fog"

Talking at the launch of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute’s report “Seeing Through The Fog”

For those of us with mental health disabilities the impairments we experience are manifold, but a significant number of the areas where we struggle just so happen to be those areas where self-improvement books point us. And that’s a really big problem.

First, let me give some examples. A condition like autism can severely affect the ability to communicate. The up phase of bipolar can impair concentration and judgement while the down phase, like depression, can create an inertia that affects the ability to start tasks.

The problem should be becoming clear. These are problems “everybody has.” And they are things that get in most people’s way when they are trying to start a business or get an idea out of their head and into the world. And self-improvement books are really good at giving people ways to get around them. I am reading one now that begins by explaining the most essential step of all is developing a “do it now” mindset. Struggling with getting things done? Always distracted by what you have to do in the day ahead? Do it now!

Well yay, go you, slap me round the face and call me Tony I never thought of that one! The thing is, people I’ll call, for want of a better word (and I know it’s imperfect because only a small subset of conditions are neurological rather than, say, chemical) “neurotypical” use the same vocabulary as those of us who are disabled use. So it appears to everyone concerned that we have the same problems and, therefore, the same solutions.

on the panel for the same event

on the panel for the same event, at Barclays HQ in Canary Wharf

But we don’t. When someone who has depression talks about inertia, they don’t mean they’re “feeling tired”. They don’t mean they’d rather be sitting on the sofa. In fact, most people I know with depression would rather be out there changing the world. But they can’t. As in, they might as well be sitting with a 3 ton weight on their legs having every trace of caffeine that’s ever passed their lips slowly withdrawn from their physiological history. And when an autistic person says they can’t make a phone call, they don’t mean they “get nervous” or “would rather watch TV.” They mean if they pick up the receiver you might as well be screaming white noise at 120 decibels as talking their language.

So when we read the language we use of ourselves for our problems with the world, and see “handy hints” about how to overcome them, we take home one or more of the following messages

  • I am not trying hard enough. In fact the books, classes, videos are telling everyone that people with mental health disabilities aren’t trying hard enough.
  • Running your own business and being a success isn’t for the likes of you.

I used to challenge people regularly. I’d say “you do realise if you said that to someone with depression, it could be really damaging.” In fairness, once people had realised that a similar vocabulary can mask greatly differing realities (not everyone does – some will always prefer the “you’re not trying hard enough” explanation, or will unable to get their head round anything else even if they try), they would agree.

And then they’d say “but I wasn’t talking about people with depression.”

And that’s nice. They get it.

But, HANG ON A MINUTE. We’re back on message again. And that message is that being an entrepreneur, or a creative, or simply successful, isn’t for you if you have a mental health disability.

Which brings me full circle, because the book I was reading was something about “finding your big idea” and the rant it sent me off on made me realise that among other things to do with creativity and empowerment, my big idea is providing the tools for people who have those difficulties in life to achieve the things they dream of. By understanding exactly what the impairments and barriers they deal with are – and where I don’t understand directly, talking to people who do, so that as well as giving people the skills to be creative, which is mission number 1 here, I can give people the strategies to use that creativity fruitfully in the face of the obstacles they need to tackle.

Which means not telling you to “do it now” but being somewhat, er, more creative than that. The self-improvement industry is letting people down, and it’s letting organizations down. And that’s a challenge I want to pick up and run with.

Questions:

  • Do you run a self-improvement business? What do you do for people who have mental health difficulties?
  • Do you experience difficulties because of mental ill health that make the advice you read seem as though it doesn’t work for you? What problems in particular?