There are points in everybody’s life when they struggle with their mental health and wellbeing. Part of being human is to experience suffering and sadness. But for most, this low mood is temporary and can lessen with time and there will be a return to being socially, cognitively and emotionally healthy. For others, who have mental illness disorders, the suffering and sadness do not go away. These feelings are life long. And whilst swimming in the sea improves their mental health it does not ‘cure’ their mental illness.
So what is the difference between mental health and mental illness? Well we all have mental health, and it relates to wellness. Mental illness is when you have been diagnosed with a mental disorder, of which there are a wide range and you may be suffering with more than one. Think about it in physical terms. You eat well and exercise to manage your physical health and remain physically healthy. But, if you have a physical illness, like diabetes, managing your physical health will lessen the symptoms but it won’t cure it. Someone with a mental illness or disorder has poor mental health just as someone with a physically illness or disorder has poor physical health. But situations or experiences can cause anyone to have poor mental health like a change in personal circumstances. Much like falling off a bike will impact someone’s physical health.
The World Health Organisation defines mental health as as “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and can contribute to her or his community”. A salutogenic approach to wellbeing is achievable in lots of ways, but for me, it’s being by the sea, swimming in the sea, walking by the sea etc. But mental illness or disorder is a diagnosed condition. Both affect how we think, feel and act so they are often grouped together as the same thing, but they are not. I view my mental health and mental disorder as two separate entities that are intrinsically linked but they are not the same.
So I have poor mental health, in the most part, because of my mental illness. I can improve it but I cannot ever have ‘good’ mental health, only mental health that is bearable and manageable. This, I realise, sounds stark and hopeless but I have come to accept it and as long as I keep myself in check, get enough rest, and take daily medication I can cope. Rest for me is time away from over stimulation and time spent in nature. I can actually feel my shoulders move away from my ears as I near the beach. Just the sight and sound instantly takes me away from my day to day depression. And whilst I cant permanently live on the beach – although that plan is in gestation – I can make regular swims in the sea when everything feels too much.
I started swimming outdoors a long time ago, as most people do, during my childhood. Summers spent on Sussex shores and term time spent in local ponds and rivers. No quite all year round, but not far off. I also started suffering with a mental illness a long time ago. But it has only been in recent years that I have really become aware of the positive impact that swimming in the sea and being on the beach has had on my mental health. It has not bought an end to my mental illness but it has provided relief when I am in the water and I believe prevented a significant number of my inevitable dysthymia episodes or at least reduced the amount of time they hang around.
Over recent years, there has been a considerable amount of coverage in the media and across agencies highlighting the importance of looking after your mental health. There are lots of ways you can do this one of which is swimming in the outdoors. For many it has been something they have turned to at a particular time in their life. To release their grief at losing a loved one, to release their anger over a failed relationship, to release the stress of their job, to release the pain of a physical ailment. But there is no release for my storm clouds, they will always be there. I have never been so low that I am unable to see tomorrow, but tomorrow’s sky is still grey. There are breaks in the cloud, my life is not void of joy, there are chinks where the sun shines down. It’s just these moments are few and far between but they are most certainly always found by the sea. I will always return to my state du jour of lethargy, overwhelm and anger not long after I leave the beach. What my time in the sea gives me is respite rather than a progressive way to end my sadness.
One of the mental disorders I have been diagnosed with is Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD) or Dysthemia. The key word here being persistent. It is both chronic and lifelong. It is exhausting living with it and the internal miserable and angry dialogue that accompanies it. It is also exhausting living with me, so we can add a tremendous amount of guilt into the mix too. I take medication every day which in the most part helps me get up, get dressed and function. My symptoms come and go, and their intensity can change over time which I have become much more aware of since swimming in the sea. But typically, for me, my symptoms don’t disappear for more than a couple of months at a time.
Like all humans I will experience changes and situations that cause me stress and loss. During these times I will feel hard and it can manifest as a depressive episode. This is exhibited and apparent differently for different people. For me I will be unable to to get dressed or leave the house. I will be angry with the whole world but particularly those closest to me. I see the world around me conspiring against me and I become resentful and judgmental of others. This is sometimes referred to as double depression and true to it’s name it feels doubly hard. I can prevent an episode if I have enough awareness to see it coming or at the very least I can reduce the time spent on a downward spiral. This I do by swimming in the sea which is available to me alongside a supportive community. Meeting someone to swim makes me accountable, it literally lifts me out of bed and lifts my mood.
I have tried various forms of therapy to alleviate the symptoms of my mental disorders. Some have worked to varying degrees, some haven’t. It’s all very individual and what I may advocate isn’t for all and vice versa. But I have remained open to trying and forever curious which has been my saving grace over the years. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a form of talking therapy that aims to break your present negative thoughts down into manageable parts. Mindfulness based CBT as an ongoing therapy, but I just see this as another thing on the long to do list that needs ticking off. Meditation which does not come easily to me unless it happens by chance which frequently occurs whilst I find my swimming flow in the sea but not in a studio or workshop environment. Journaling doesn’t appeal to me as I can become frustrated if I don’t do it every day or if I sit down to do it and I have just got nothing to say or most likely if the thought of writing overwhelms me. But in reality writing this blog is my journal – so clearly writing as a way of processing my thoughts and emotions is a good practice for me. Practising gratitude is really not something I have achieved as the things I am grateful for are surrounded by negative thoughts – for example why my long suffering husband has stuck it out for so long. And then there’s always the self sabotaging glass of wine or 6 in the evening.
After a number of years trying new things, reading a lot, keeping curious and not giving up – not consistently and not without falling a lot – I think, I hope, I have found my flow. For me, nothing beats daily medication complimented by swimming in the sea with a supportive community. This is how I manage my mental illness AND my mental health. Salted Wellbeing with dash of SSRIs. It may not be the cure, there is not cure, but I have found a way to stay safe in the storm.