Reflecting on Failure for a Focus on Mental Health Awareness

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Grab a cuppa lads, this one goes deep.

Two things happened recently that made me want to write this post. First, I read an utterly incredible book by author and journalist Elizabeth Day called ‘How To Fail‘. Some of you may have read it (if so, let me know what you thought!), some of you may have not. In this book, Elizabeth reflects on her failures in life, what she has learnt from them, and how she has grown, evolved and gotten to know herself better as a person as a result of them. That might sound cheesy – it’s anything but. She discusses her failures across many domains of life, from childhood, romantic relationships, family and friendship to career goals to her struggle to conceive and her experience of fertility medicine (which is the most honest, and heart-breaking part of the book in my opinion). I had been reflecting a lot on how we grow and evolve as individuals before reading this book and ever since I finished it I’ve been thinking about my own past failures, and how they have changed either me as a person or my life trajectory.

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The second thing that happened was a fantastic post by Joe O’Brien – Joe works in mental health and has experience in clinical and research settings in the UK and Ireland, and runs the brilliant Instagram page @headfirst0. He has been on my Podcast recently too, which you can listen to here, and shares evidence-based, accessible and informative content on all things mental health. As May is Mental Health Awareness Month, as you probably will by now have seen the green ribbon around in shops or on social media, Joe shared a post about how important it is for us to make the best of use this month of awareness to educate both ourselves and others about mental health – what does it mean? How do symptoms of mental health disorders feel, and how can these differ from person to person? How do we know if we are struggling with our mental health – and how, and where can we seek help? These are all really important questions to pose, because while it’s essential to make the public aware that ‘it’s okay not to be okay’ as is frequently said, if we don’t we know how to recognise what ‘not okay‘ feels like in ourselves, we won’t know to seek help. Joe also encouraged people to share their stories of mental health struggles, so that we can see that we are all human, and we are not alone in experiencing mental health struggles – in fact, far from it.

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Writing about what I’m reflecting on always helps me to make sense of it. So, for Mental Health Awareness Month, and to help me make sense of my failures, I’ve decided to write this little post about how I have failed in the past, and how those experiences brought me mental health struggles as well as resilience, personal growth, and ultimately, changed me for the better. I realise that some of the failures I discuss might seem trivial in the grand scheme of the world’s problems, and maybe they are. But my experiences are chapters of my life, not anyone else’s, so they are all I can write about from the heart. And hopefully, they might resonate with some of you and shed a positive light on your experiences.  I think, because I’m a qualified doctor, happy in my chosen career path, and have a social media platform where I do share aspects of my life day to day, people may assume that I’ve never failed, or live a carefree life. Now, I will say that I’ve had an absolutely incredible upbringing – my parents (and siblings) are my rocks – and am acutely aware of how this wholesome upbringing has shaped my opportunities in life (nor am I discounting the hard work I put into those either). So while I can’t say I face potentially life-threatening or harmful day to day physical and mental challenges (as many in the developed and developing world do – poverty, food insecurity, war, to name but a few), and I’m very grateful for that, I haven’t lived in a happy successful bubble my whole life either. Remember, social media, especially Instagram, represents a curated highlight reel of people’s lives, and everyone has life chapters they don’t read out loud. So here goes me sharing my failures, my mental health struggles as a result, and a bettering of myself as a result.

Failure #1: To believe in myself. 

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People assume, when you say you’re a medical doctor, that you are ‘brainy’ i.e. highly intelligent, and don’t need to work hard to get good grades. Wrong. Anything I have achieved in life is a result of yes, okay, a degree of intelligence from my school education, but mostly, it’s damn hard work. GRAFT. And also, something people don’t mention enough when they talk about achievements and success – self-belief. The confidence to say ‘Yes, I can do that.’ When I came to the final 2 years of secondary school, I started looking at college courses, and realised that I wanted to combine my love of science with working with people. So I thought about nutrition and dietetics, psychology, physiotherapy – as well as English and Journalism actually, because I love to write. But medicine? God no. Why? Because ‘I wouldn’t get the points.’ I literally said as my reason not to pursue it. It seemed totally intangible to me, even though I was a good student and worked hard. It was, in my opinion, beyond my abilities and brainpower.

My parents, thankfully, decided I was wrong. I ended up visiting a career coach at their request, who, when I said my reason for not pursuing medicine (i.e. ‘I wouldn’t get the points’), simply said ‘Yes, you would.’ That was all. An incredibly simple statement, one which my parents had told me time and time again, but weirdly, this stranger convinced me. A little fire lit inside me when he said it, and right then and there, I decided I’d go for it. That was the beginning of what self-belief felt like to me. It’s a cornerstone of our mental health, because believing in ourselves helps us to work towards living the most fulfilled life we can. That’s what I found in this first failure.

Failure #2: Getting into medical school.

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Little known fact (though not one I hide) – I didn’t get into medical school on the first go. The year I applied as I finished secondary school, the Health Professions Admissions Test (HPAT) was introduced for those pursuing medicine in Ireland. Essentially, now, instead of jumping through the one hoop of getting almost perfect results in your final exams to get into med school, you now also had to do the HPAT, the score of which would be combined with your Leaving Certificate (Irish secondary school final exams) results (called ‘points’ in Ireland). The HPAT is an aptitude test, and contains questions on logical reasoning and problem solving, interpersonal understanding and non-verbal reasoning. Lots of big words there I know. Its tricky, I won’t lie, and the way it was marketed in its first year, in my opinion (and my parents’) was as a ‘natural’ aptitude test, i.e. do a few sample questions, and if you’ve got it, you’ll be fine. Ha. Although I passed the HPAT, and worked my butt off for my Leaving Cert exam, I  I was two points short of getting medicine in Dublin. I actually would have gotten into college in Galway, but at the time, I didn’t want to move out (such a homebird!). Was I disappointed? Frustrated? Maybe a little bitter? Yes to all of the above.

So what did I learn from that failure? That if you want something badly enough, work harder, work smarter, and don’t get bitter – get better instead. I went into my second choice course, Human Nutrition and Dietetics (which, if I hadn’t gotten medicine the second time around, would have meant I would be a dietitian now!), and completed first year of that, while planning to do the HPAT again, this time with a BUCKETLOAD of practice. I also LOVED my first year of college, the friends I made (some of whom I still see today!), and it stoked the fire of love I had always had for nutrition too. I got into medicine in Trinity College on my second attempt (this time two points OVER what I needed), and that was it”

That was the first time I really felt I made a setback into a comeback. I was hugely disappointed in myself for not getting medicine on first attempt, and my self-belief took a big knock. But I also relied on that self-belief and a hard work ethic to try again. It was worth it.

Failure #3: To put family and friends first.

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Medicine is a tough, tough course. You become immersed in the world of your fellow students and a little bit alienated from what everyone else is doing at university. The exams you do together, studying pretty much consistently during the year, freaking out over the volume of knowledge you have to cram into your brain, grabbing (more than a few) nights out and (more than a few) drinks to let off steam – most of this is done together, because you all face the same deadlines and reprieves, however brief. It is a hard degree, I would always say that first to anyone who asks about it, but it’s also incredible. I wouldn’t change the majority of my medical training (there are some aspects of how it’s delivered that I would perhaps constructively criticise, but that’s for another post) – but there’s a part of how I personally got through it that I would.

Medical school can make you selfish, because of how much of your time it demands. I’m a 110% kind of person, and I never felt like I could approach my degree in a laissez-faire manner. I wanted to do as well as I could, so that I could be the best for the future patients I would assess, diagnose and treat. I worked hard, from first to final year. I hadn’t started ‘The Irish Balance’ then – but I do think, with hindsight, I could have done with more of that balance ethos in my life!

Many a time, I let my exams, and preparation for them, come first, ahead of giving family and friends even just 10% more of my time that I know they would have appreciated. I’ll be honest – I didn’t really know how to do it any differently, and maybe a lot of this hindsight comes with maturity. But I did definitely fail to put those people, central to my social network and mental well-being, first.

What has this failure taught me? It has taught me both gratitude, and the value of the precious moments in life spent with those you love. That working productively and getting revision and assignments done, whether for work, college or school, is not a function of how MUCH time you give to them, but the QUALITY of the time you give to them. This year on my Masters, I’ve worked hard, but I’ve also really, really tried to embrace that balance I preach more than I did as an undergraduate.

Failure #4: To listen to my body.

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I’m going to try and keep this one brief, because it’s a whole other blog post to be honest, and as well as that, I don’t intend to tell all of my personal life on my blog. But I’ve spoken about my over-training ways here in the past (check out the most recent article on that here), and so it felt like this was a failure worth focusing on.

In the past (as recently as just over a year ago), I’ve trained too frequently, and not rested enough and to be brutally honest, unknowingly attached far too much of my self-worth on whether I had ‘worked out’ that day or not. I’m grateful that an injury forced me to question that, and at the same time I found yoga, and so over the last year I’ve found a balance to and re-ignited love for movement. I enjoy weight training in the gym, but not on set days or in a very structured way, and I absolutely adore yoga, and going for walks or on occasion, hikes. Not to earn food, burn calories, or validate myself – but because it makes my soul happier. And I can do some of those things with friends and family too, especially yoga classes and walks.

The second leg of this journey began this year, when, in a place of training balance, I decided that 2019, the year I turned 28, finished a masters, moved county and started a new job (I will be doing this in July, although I didn’t know that when I made this decision), was the year that I would re-learn to fuel and nourish my body properly. Break free of using any remaining ‘good’ or ‘bad’ moralistic words to describe food. And give the middle finger to the diet culture society is entrenched in. Because it is EVERYWHERE gang. Right now its focused on the ‘summer is coming, quick, get the beach body ready‘ narrative – more general examples are when we say things like ‘Oh, I’m hitting the gym on Monday to work off a bad weekend of treats‘, or ‘I shouldn’t eat this because…’. There is a very welcome WAVE of anti-diet culture posts on social media right now, and I am HERE FOR IT, and fully support it. Diet culture doesn’t foster long term healthy relationships with food, and worse still, it attaches our value and self-worth as people to the food choices we make. If I ate dessert yesterday, I’m not a ‘bad’ person, nor is that a ‘bad food’. Foods may be more or less nutrient-dense – for example, fruits and vegetables compared to a chocolate bar – and the nutrient density is what we place so much emphasis on, especially when we talk about the majority of food choices that make up our overall dietary pattern.

Two catalysts for this process were my Masters in Public Health and Nutrition, and my friend Nathalie Lennon. My Masters equipped me with the skills to critique research, and question social media (and Netflix) myths I had seen, particularly prevalent about food, and in turn, challenge my own thoughts and pre-conceived beliefs and ideas. My friend Nathalie, who is @nathalielennon on Instagram and a ray of positivity to follow, is a personal trainer and was beginning a nutritional coaching course and needed case studies for it. I volunteered happily. 4 months after working with Nathalie, I’ve learnt to adequately nourish my body, listen to it fully, and even gained a happy and needed bit of weight in the process. I look better, my training is SO much better, and my energy levels are EXPONENTIALLY better. Sometimes, we just need a little push from someone looking at us outside in, to help us give ourselves permission to break our own rules.

This failure taught me that my body is here for life, and is my home. It’s an instrument I should be grateful for everyday, because it allows me to chase my dreams, my passions, spend time with those I love, and hopefully make the world a better place in some way in my work as a doctor. It’s not an ornament, and how I fuel and move it should make me happy and healthy – and how it looks, moves and fuels does not define me or my self-worth.

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And that folks, is a wrap. Please note, this little list of my failures is neither exhaustive nor is it self-flagellation, or a search for compliments. It’s me writing to make sense of my failures, my mental health struggles over the past few years, and my growth as a fallible human being for the better. I can honestly say at the ripe age of 28 (good Lord, my thirties will be fun…), that I’m in the healthiest mind I have ever been, and that has been a frickin’ big challenge. I don’t regret any one of my failures in life, because they shifted my trajectory to where I am right now, and I’m grateful for that. I’m a ‘silver lining is always there‘ kind of gal, and I do think, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time, that we have to focus on our failures to make sense of them, learn from them, and be better in body and mind as a result.

I hope you enjoyed this post. Do let me know what you thought – leave a comment, drop me a message on Instagram (@theirishbalance), send an email – you know the drill! And remember – this month, pick up a green ribbon, and mind your mental health, and that of those around you.

Ciara 🙂 x

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