Friday, October 28, 2011

What's your war story?

Everyone battling depression or anxiety has a war story, and I don't use the word "war" lightly. I want to discuss today the value of esteeming one's own story as a way of empowering the person struggling with mental issues.

One of the most powerful ways I have learnt to attach the significance my own story deserves is through discovering other people's stories in movies, art works, TV shows (and the like) that resonate with my own.

Earlier this year I had the privilege of travelling to London where I saw the West End theatre production War Horse. Later that same week I was in Madrid, Spain, where I viewed with my own eyes Pablo Picasso's masterpiece Guernica. I found the stories these two creative works depicted spoke intimately with my own life experience.

This is great news for the mental sufferer because if creative works have a power to heal and inspire, then this is a force that can be harnessed to your benefit. Let me demonstrate this by explaining how War Horse and Guernica helped to inspire me.

Against the backdrop of World War One, War Horse tells the story of the relationship between a boy and his horse who each wind up serving on the front line amid the terrible reality of war. Amazingly, the theatre production uses puppetry to animate the character of the horses in the play. The expertise of the puppeteers in making the horses lifelike is remarkable. Picasso's Guernica is a gigantic mural depicting the infamous bombing of a rural Spanish township in the lead up to the Second World War. Among the features of the painting are humans and animals - including a horse - being attacked. The piece is one of the most acclaimed works of its time (if not of the entire 20th century).

For those who are familiar with my story (for a brief overview click here), you will know my mental troubles sprang in part from a bombing (the 9/11 terrorist attacks) and living with animals through extreme drought. Something about the love between the boy and his horse in War Horse reminded me of the hardship I experienced alongside the animals on our farm. It told me that I was not alone in my suffering because other people had been through times where the world seemed upside down. To see this truth communicated on stage was breathtaking.

Similarly breathtaking was seeing Picasso's masterpiece in the flesh. It was my first ever visit to an art gallery as an adult (which reveals something of my lack of prior appreciation for fine art - Aussie males take note) and I was literally transfixed. I even came back the next day just to drink in the painting again. It spoke so much to me about the resilience of human beings (and animals too) and that stories that were once hidden can be revealed for all to see and understand.

I also share about War Horse and Guernica because a prized collection of Picasso's works is on its way to Sydney to be displayed at the Art Gallery of NSW over the Australian summer, and additionally Steven Spielberg has made a film version of War Horse which is also being released this summer. Maybe they can offer some therapeutic inspiration to others like they have done to me.

I come back to my point about esteeming your own story. Never discount its significance. Within it is the essence of what makes things such as feature films and great art so captivating: one person telling another that they matter.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Cause for optimism

The inspiration for today's title lies in one of the best insights I can give into managing depression and/or anxiety. The insight is that there are many facets to successfully managing either of these conditions, and that only one facet needs to be going wrong for life to get difficult.

Why on earth is this fact cause for optimism, I hear you ask? The answer is that a person experiencing mental trouble can take comfort in the knowledge that while times may be tough and all sorts of things seem to be going wrong, it is more than likely that he or she is in a position to attend to one of these aspects in a small way (in keeping with the reality of what might well be miniscule energy levels and motivation). And the extra good news is that sometimes the tiniest positive actions can make a world of difference.

I can't tell you how many times the seemingly small and insignificant things have actually been positive turning points for me. This is because in long-term mental health management all the pieces matter. This is a critically important point to be aware of because it empowers the person who feels that they have no power to deal with the "big" problems in his or her life.

Start small. It may just be the start of something big.

On a related note, the video I have embedded below is a scene from one of my favourite episodes of The West Wing. It is a conversation between two leading characters of the show: Leo and Josh. Josh has just been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and Leo - who has himself had mental issues in his past - has something to share.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Exercise and other things I should do regularly

So far on this website I have been sharing my insights into the various aspects of overcoming and managing a mental illness. My aim is to write a few hundred words on a more or less weekly basis, though this is my first post in a couple of weeks. 

The main reason for my recent interlude is that I have been writing a short feature article on managing depression for a health and lifestyle publication (which shall remain secret until it is published sometime in the coming weeks). Additionally, I am mindful not to provide half-baked words considering how serious the subject matter can be. For instance my most recent post before this one looked at suicide and how we can each play a part in helping to prevent this tragic loss of life.

Having noted the above I am pleased to today (in the spirit of rugby world cup enthusiasm) share some thoughts about an aspect of my long-term health management I have not as yet discussed: exercise. The first thing I would say is that the body and the mind are heavily reliant on each other, and what happens from the neck down has a big impact on what goes on "upstairs". Looking after the body is therefore an essential aspect of managing a mental illness.

The good news about exercise is that you do not need to be good at or enjoy watching sport in order to exercise regularly and effectively. I had the good fortune of enjoying ball sports during my primary and high school years as well as for most of my university life. In a sense my exercise was automatically programmed during this time.

I highly recommend team sports as an enjoyable and healthy way to increase your fitness while at the same time meeting others and getting to know people. However if getting to team practice/training sessions and competition games are not feasible for you due to job or other time constraints, I highly recommend finding other ways to exercise so that you maximise your health.

For me this involves being the member of a gym where I attend "group fitness" classes. Most gyms out there offer two basic components to individual exercise: 
  • a cardio and weights room where people exercise on an individual basis (which can involve the supervision/instruction of a personal trainer)
  • a large room or hall where a qualified trainer instructs groups of people usually in 30/45/60 minute blocks (this is what I do). There are a wide variety of classes usually offered that cater to different personal tastes. 
Of course there are plenty of options if neither team sports or gyms appeal to you. The main point I would like to make is that any person experiencing a mental illness such as depression or anxiety will definitely benefit from being regularly physically active. Getting going with this may require a bit of trial-and-error to find what works for you, but I can say from personal experience that the time you devote to finding ways to exercise in safe, reliable and frequent ways is invaluable to your mental health.