Notes in Circulation # 8: my mental health journey

This year on World Mental Health Day (October 10), I was a day late tweeting that I’m renewing my commitment to my mental health, as I did last year. And I thought that I wanted to say a little bit more than just a few tweets. So I said that I was going to do a blogpost. This is that post. I was partly moved to say more about my mental health journey by Dr. Zoe Ayres’s twitter activity and projects. Do check out her work and profile. It has been a long mental health journey for me. The pillars of my mental health that are now in place took a long time to be put in place: therapy, physical health, Alexander Technique, journaling, self-education, hobbies/play, friendships. And there are quite a few. I’ll say something about them one by one.

Therapy: I’ve been in (talk) therapy off and on with multiple therapists since I first went to therapy in 2014. The academic year from 2018-2019 was especially important because I did a long run of regular therapy with a single therapist for the first time. Part of that coincided with some lessons in Alexander Technique, so I’ll say more about that below. Most recently I’ve been working with a therapist in Lahore for the past two years, with some break in between. This is now the longest run with a single therapist that I’ve done, and I think it’s going well for me. With this particular therapist, the primary goals were processing the trauma of my only sibling’s disappearance and death, and to make sure I had the support to finish my PhD. The PhD was completed this year in the summer, thought the trauma of my brother’s death continues to linger. Nevertheless, there are other goals now also for which therapy is helpful. I’m sometimes asked how long I’ll be in therapy, and how long it will be before I’m “ok”. I reply that I am already ok. I go about my daily life and go to therapy once a week and treat it like a mental and emotional exercise or a gym. I exert myself in that space or take a break as I feel like it. The therapist is flexible as well, in both the things we address in therapy and also when to meet or not, so that helps me out too.

Alexander Technique (AT): With AT, which I learnt with a teacher in NYC while I was doing therapy already, it felt like a big part of myself and my potential became unlocked within weeks. I experienced relaxation and ease which I did not think was possible. Everything seemed to become so much easier. AT practice become a big part of my mental health routine and care for quite some time. The AT lessons were also what led to a laptop stand and wireless keyboard + mouse purchase, to help out my posture. Sitting up straight to work at a desk was a massive positive change to my daily routine. In the past year and a half or so my AT practice has become very patchy and irregular. But I haven’t given it up long enough to forget the fundamentals of the practice. Having a consistent and regular AT practice is something that I really want to get back to. I know the wonders it has done for me in the past, and I don’t doubt that it can help me out even now. In a way, I never left AT because I never really stopped using my Roost laptop stand. But I need to get back to the constructive rest practice.

Physical health: This is a tough one. I’ve struggled with my weight for a very, very long time. The people who’ve known me the longest know very well how my weight has fluctuated over the years. I only started working out in a gym (or anywhere, for that matter) when I had an injury in my mid-20s which required rehab. Since then I’ve kept on learning about different kinds of training and exercise. Discovering kettle bells was a big light bulb moment. It was the first time I truly enjoyed working out with any kind of weights. Almost two years ago I bought weights to work out at home. Haven’t looked back since. While dealing with my weight it still a challenge, I still enjoy working out. I’ve slowly built up good muscle mass and feel good about my strength. It also feels good to not be paying for a gym. You wouldn’t rent a tv, would you?

Self-education: My mental health is a part of my own evolution as a person, and I’m trying to learn about life and about mental health however I can. So reading has helped me out a lot. Fiction as a means of escape and also as an indirect way of engaging with reality. Non-fiction is a more direct way to engage with reality. So for example, because managing and understanding my grief is such a big part of my mental health journey now, books like Will Buxton’s My Greatest Defeat really resonates with me. (Also because I’m a Formula 1 fan.) Similarly, Alex Skolnick’s autobiography gives me hope and affirmation that it is possible to learn, grow and change a lot as a person. The Body Keeps the Score is a really great book to learn about the technical side of trauma. Mike Brearley’s On Form was just a really good find at a time when I was interested in what it means to perform at a high level in your work and life. (I also listen to podcasts, or used to till a few months ago anyway. The list slowly dwindled. When the final push towards my PhD completion began in April this year, I dropped the podcasts and have really only listened to The Pakistan Experience since then. Do check it out. It’s excellent.)

Hobbies/play: When I was living in NYC, at some point I started play pool, first at a bar and then a pool hall. If there was someone who wanted to play with me that was great, but I was happy to play alone. I realized it was something I could do to let my mind relax and wander freely to wherever it wanted to go. Before my Post Keynesian economics qualifying exam, I spent an hour at the pool hall just practicing pool. Then I aced the exam. That was particularly satisfying because I had struggled with taking that exam: the academic year before, I had twice registered for it and not taken it. It wasn’t until I spoke to two friends who advised that I treat the exam like a learning opportunity and allow myself to prepare for it in an imperfect fashion, that I was able to sit for the exam.

When I moved to Lahore in March 2020 just before the first coronavirus related lockdown here, I immediately set up my PS4 and started re-playing Mortal Kombat X and Horizon Zero Dawn. Then my uncle gave me a bunch of his games. I got absolutely hooked to GT Sport. It was an absolute godsend. Again, like pool, I could focus on my braking points and lap times and my mind was free to do its own thing. The night before my brother’s funeral, when all the arrangements had been made and there was nothing else for me to do, I spent some time zooming around a virtual race track before going to bed.

Now I also dabble a bit in music. I have a small rig consisting of an electric guitar and an Orange Micro Crush amp that sits on my desk. I also go karting now and then here in Lahore. They’re just rental karts, but the feeling is liberating. The first time I went I was ecstatic. The vibrations and forces I can feel in my body are great fun and have the same effect pool did: letting my mind relax and wander. One unfortunate side effect is that playing GT Sport is no longer as much fun as it used to be. More recently I’ve been playing and exploring the world of Death Stranding. The game has immense therapeutic value to me.

These pillars have helped me bear the mental strain of graduate student life which was there anyway before March 2020. But then the strain grew exponentially and became compounded because of the pandemic and because my brother went missing. Those strains have not entirely disappeared, I think, but are only transformed. The trauma of a missing brother has became the grief of a sibling who is no longer alive. The mental strain of being PhD student is gone, and replaced by a great sense of accomplishment. But this new phase of life brings new challenges: finding employment in a tough economic environment while still adjusting to life in Pakistan (reverse culture shock is very real), slowly shedding the baggage of a graduate student identity, fully owning the success of the PhD, forming new relationships, learning new things, etc.

The journey forward then is to keep on refining these different practices and elements of my mental health self-care as I evolve and so does my ambition in life. I’d like to keep writing about my mental health journey. There should be at least a part 2 to this post because I didn’t end up writing about journalising and my friendships for now. Perhaps another time.