TL;DR Years of a terrible diet, no exercise and not dealing with my underlying stress & anxiety problems left me a gibbering wreck. I was having panic attacks, experiencing physical pain and I was deeply, deeply unhappy. Enough was enough, so 2 years ago I took control and started making changes. It worked, mostly. This is a summary of what I did and how I’m still doing. (Updated for Geek Mental Help Week October 2016).
I recently came across a post on Medium that Wil Wheaton wrote. I hadn’t heard the name before, but a quick Google told me that he was Wes in Star Trek the Next Generation and he also appears in the Big Bang Theory.
Anyway, he wrote a great post entitled Six Months After I Hit The Reboot Button On My Life and it struck me how there were a lot of parallels to the lifestyle changes I’ve made.
It’s almost 18 months to the day that I made my own decision to take my health into my own hands so I figured I’d write an update to the one I posted nearly a year ago. However, this time I’ll follow Wil’s format as I like the marking system he uses.
Wil lists out areas of his life that he wanted to change. They match closely with mine, but my goal was simpler: stop being ill.
Fantastic as it is, the UK health service had no idea what was wrong with me. I was (politely) told to go away and only come back if something changed.
I had debilitating pain in my head and face, I was light and noise intolerant, I couldn’t focus for long periods, I was experiencing panic attacks, couldn’t really deal with many ‘stressful’ situations, I was deeply unhappy and I generally felt like crap.
What I decided to do, like Wil, was to remove all the ‘bad’ things in my life that I could control. Strip things away so we could isolate the problems that I was facing.
Compared to a few years back I hardly drink.
I’ll drink a few beers on the weekend but occasionally do slip back into old habits of drinking during the week too.
I hardly ever drink anything stronger than lager. Gone are the days when I’d get a bottle of scotch for Christmas and it be gone by the end of Jan. I still have a bottle I was bought as a present in November last year.
I feel sharper for the lack of alcohol and it has made staying at my ideal weight easier too.
It can make social situations hard because I want a beer, but I also don’t want a beer. Knowing I’ll probably cave in and have one it can remove the incentive to go out, particularly during the week.
I’m giving myself a C for this one as there have still been times when I’ve fallen back into my old habits.
I go to bed early and I rise early without needing to set my alarm.
I’m careful to not consume caffeine in the afternoon or evening and I don’t allow screens in my bedroom.
I have a great morning routine, and I feel a lot more positive each day.
I used to be a night owl, late to bed then struggling to get up in the morning and tired all day, but no longer.
I now prefer mornings, they are a better part of the day and you’re getting things done when you have lots more energy.
I’ve done really well here; a complete turnaround.
Be fit and exercise regularly
Before, I was unable to run for the bus, but since then I’ve really got into running, but I also cycle and do at least one body weight workout with a suspension trainer each week.
Last week (April 2016) I managed to complete the London Marathon which was, without doubt, the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.
I’ve bags of energy and my stamina has increased massively.
I’m the fittest and strongest I’ve ever been.
I cook our meals from scratch every evening as well as make us healthy packed lunches for the next day.
We have a good, wholesome diet that includes a lot of vegetables and I actually enjoy eating them.
This is something that would have been unheard of 18 months ago; my diet was rubbish and I was on the road to type 2 diabetes. No doubt
My new diet is definitely the source of super powers and I’m delighted at how I’ve changed things for the better.
The exercise and the dietary regime mean that my weight has stabilised at a level I’m comfortable with.
We’re still looking at circa 3 stone down from 2 years back. Down from a 36″ to a 30″ waist.
I do have a few pounds that I’d like to slim from my midriff and now I’m not training for a major endurance event I can simplify my diet and focus on shifting this. Being in my 40’s this is going to be tough, but it’s a target.
A- (because those few pounds are still there)
Improved Mental Health
We’re convinced that the root cause of my problems were stress, exacerbated by being constantly tired, eating a terrible diet, drinking too much and never exercising. I was a complete mess.
I don’t formally meditate but I do view my regular runs as a meditation session. Whenever things get pretty stressful I can use breathing techniques if I need to and also going for a walk or looking out of the window for 5 minutes can do wonders.
Even on my commutes to work I’m focusing on the outside, on the tress, the sunrise, the horizon, not letting my inner narrator run wild and tie me into knots.
Now that the poor health regime has been stripped away, what’s left is a pretty strong machine that is receiving regular attention; I’m a lot better than I was.
I can handle ‘normal’ levels of stress pretty well. I run a business and manage a team after all and let’s not forget 3 kids, two of them pubescent teenagers! However, if multiple things conspire to kick off at the same time I can still be more adversely affected than most.
My regime is pretty good, but I probably could do even better at finding ways to improve.
Stop Being Ill
I’ve gone from a constant state of pain, inability to focus and lots of anxiety to someone who is physically fit and healthy, with lots of energy and a much more positive outlook on life.
The anxiety is still there, but I’ve got a handle on it. I have techniques to remind myself that it’s all in my head, that narratives can change and that if I keep my chimp caged I’ll stay healthy.
However since this time last year I’ve probably had two relapses. Where the physical symptoms came back for weeks on end, which in turn didn’t help my mental health.
Due to my regime I managed to avoid going into a downward spiral, so these episodes did not stop me functioning. Thus, the impact has been greatly reduced.
I now know that the physical symptoms I experience are generally referred to as ‘stress related somatoform pain‘. That’s not to say I’m making it up, rather that the real pain & symptoms that I experience have no obvious cause and are probably generated by my brain. What a bastard!
Even though I’ve put in so much work to remove any possible causes and also shore up my defences, even though I think the rest is pretty much out of my control, I’ve still been ill so I’m going to mark me as a D+
How am I doing?
I make that 22 out of a possible 28. Adding or subtracting 0.5 for a +/- that comes in at 23.5 or an average of 3.4 or a near B+.
The hope is that if I keep on with this regime, over time I’ll be able to avoid relapsing.
Still, compared to where I was things are greatly improved and a lot of that has been down to conscious effort on my part, which feels particularly good.
Update: October 2016
It can be hard keeping on the straight and narrow but 6 months on I’m still there or thereabouts.
Summer was pretty ‘lazy’, though.
That is to say I ate more pies, drank more beer and exercised less, but generally had a great time.
This ‘lapse’ was a conscious decision to relax, to let my hair down a bit and do what felt right. The really heartening thing is that the systems I’ve put in place around me protected me from the constant negative feelings and thoughts I might have previously had about letting myself down or that I was failing in some way.
That chimp can be a total mo-fo but he’s still caged. There were no further relapses or attacks. I’m still fit and run regularly (though a lot less over summer!) and I’m enjoying my work. With only a few weeks since the kids went back to school I’m nearly back in the zone (though maybe a few pounds heavier!).
Over the summer I was also finally diagnosed with A.D.D. I say finally as it was a bit of a slog. Getting a diagnosis as an adult involved a lot of reading around the subject and pushing my GP to make the relevant referrals but eventually it paid dividends. I’m not sure the diagnosis makes much difference but it does go a long way to explaining my natural tendencies and allows me to harness & use positively some of the aspects of the condition, particularly hyperfocus.