Tag: health

World Mental Health Day: my story

Note: This is a slightly modified version of a post I made to the Moodle HQ forum earlier today as part of our Wellbeing Week.


According to Heads Up, an Australian organisation focused on mental health at work, there are nine attributes of a healthy workplace:

  1. Prioritising mental health
  2. Trusting, fair & respectful culture
  3. Open & honest leadership
  4. Good job
  5. Workload management
  6. Employee development
  7. Inclusion & influence
  8. Work/Life balance
  9. Mental health support

Just over a decade ago, I burned myself out while teaching, spending a few weeks signed off work and on antidepressants. It was undoubtedly the lowest point of my life. The experience has made me realise how fragile mental health can be, as other members of staff were struggling too. Ultimately, it was our workplace environment that was to blame, not individual human failings.

These days, I’m pleased to say that, most of the time everything is fine. Just like anyone who identifies strongly with the work they’re doing, it can be difficult to put into practice wisdom such as “prioritising family” and “putting health first”. Good places to work, however, encourage you to do this, which is part of what Wellbeing Week at Moodle is all about.

Currently, I work remotely for Moodle four days per week. I travel regularly, but have been based from home in various roles for the past six years. While others might find it lonely, boring, or too quiet, I find that, overall, it suits my temperament.

When I worked in offices and classrooms, I had an idea of remote working that was completely different from the reality of it. Being based in somewhere other than your colleagues can be stressful, as an article on Hacker Noon makes very clear. I haven’t experienced all of the following issues listed in the article, but I know people who have.

  • Dehumanisation: “communication tends to stick to structured channels”
  • Interruptions and multitasking: “being responsive on the chat accomplishes the same as being on time at work in an office: it gives an image of reliability”
  • Overworking: “this all amounts for me to the question of trust: your employer trusted you a lot, allowing you to work on your own terms , and in exchange, I have always felt compelled to actually work a lot more than if I was in an office.”
  • Being a stay at home dad: “When you spend a good part of your time at home, your family sees you as more available than they should.”
  • Loneliness: “I do enjoy being alone quite a lot, but even for me, after two weeks of only seeing colleagues through my screen, and then my family at night, I end up feeling quite sad. I miss feeling integrated in a community of pairs.”
  • Deciding where to work every day: “not knowing where I will be working everyday, and having to think about which hardware I need to take with me”
  • You never leave ‘work’: “working at home does not leave you time to cool off while coming back home from work”
  • Career risk: “working remotely makes you less visible in your company”

Wherever you spend the majority of your time, the physical environment only goes so far. That’s why the work the Culture Champs are doing at Moodle HQ is so important. Feeling supported to do a manageable job in a trusting and respectful culture is something independent of where your chair happens to be located.

So, I’d like to encourage everyone reading this to open up about your mental health. Talk about it with your family and friends, of course, but also to your colleagues. How are you feeling?


Image by Johan Blomström used under a Creative Commons license

Where migraines end and I begin

I think I must have been about eighteen when I started getting migraines.

I’d applied and got through the first few stages for having the Royal Air Force sponsor me through university. In return, I would have to agree to ‘sign up’ for sixteen years after graduation. It’s a fact that I’m reminded of as it’s only now, as a 37 year-old, that I would be returning to civilian life.

After a successful interview with the Wing Commander at RAF Linton-on-Ouse, he asked if anything had changed with my application since filling it in some six months prior to our meeting. It was a routine question, but one I felt I had to answer honestly.

I disclosed that I’d just started suffering from migraines with visual disturbances (‘aura’). He raised an eyebrow, walked over to a cabinet and pulled out a large binder. Finding the relevant entry, he read it to me. I already knew that I couldn’t be an RAF pilot after needing corrective lenses from the age of seventeen. Now, he told me, because every type of migraine can be triggered by stress, a position in Fighter Control was now also out of reach.

Given my feelings about war and nationalism these days, I suppose that I ‘dodged a bullet’ there (so to speak). At the time, though, I was bitterly disappointed. So began my life as a migraineur.


In today’s Observer, Eva Wiseman writes about migraines after news that the American FDA has approved a  potential ‘cure‘ to migraines:

The newly-approved drugs follow a much more targeted approach [to previous efforts]. Back in the 1980s, researchers investigating migraines’ root causes zeroed in on the CGRP, a molecule that regulates nerve communication and helps control blood vessel dilation. Scientists found that those with migraines had markedly more CGRP molecules than those without. They also found that if they injected CGRP into people who were known to get migraines, that alone would trigger one. People without a history of migraines could get the same injection without experiencing a headache.

However, like Wiseman, I’m a little skeptical about all this; I’m not sure migraines can be fully separated out from the migraineur:

My personality is curled around the knowledge of a migraine, like the fruit of an avocado and its pit.

It’s difficult to explain what it’s like to have a migraine to someone who has never had one. They’re whole-body experiences and, although people often point to the crushing headaches, it’s actually impossible to separate them out as a distinct ‘event’. They come at you like waves, gentle at first, but increasing in ferocity.

It was quite by accident that I came across a book a few years ago that had a direct and lasting effect on my life. The late Oliver Sacks’ book Migraine made me realise that, for better or worse, migraines are just part of who I am. He draws on clues from history about migraines, as well as his own clinical experience:

 “You keep pressing me,” he said, “to say that the attacks start with this symptom or that symptom, this phenomenon or that phenomenon, but this is not the way I experience them. It doesn’t start with one symptom, it starts as a whole. You feel the whole thing, quite tiny at first, right from the start.… It’s like glimpsing a point, a familiar point, on the horizon, and gradually getting nearer, seeing it get larger and larger; or glimpsing your destination from far off, in a plane, having it get clearer and clearer as you descend through the clouds.” “The migraine looms,” he added, “but it’s just a change of scale—everything is already there from the start.”

Curiously, there are significant benefits to being a migraineur. These include mild synaesthesia, the ability to see more visually things like historical dates that others find more abstract, and being finely attuned to the weather. There’s also some evidence that migraineurs are less likely to have huge egos.

Sacks writes that:

Transient states of depersonalisation are appreciably commoner during migraine auras. Freud reminds us that “… the ego is first and foremost a body-ego … the mental projection of the surface of the body.” The sense of “self” appears to be based, fundamentally, on a continuous inference from the stability of body-image, the stability of outward perceptions, and the stability of time-perception. Feelings of ego-dissolution readily and promptly occur if there is serious disorder or instability of body-image, external perception, or time-perception, and all of these, as we have seen, may occur during the course of a migraine aura.

Yet these various upsides for the migraineur can’t be separated from the huge downsides: visual disturbances, the loss of muscle tone, crushing headaches, and an unshakeable feeling of anxiety and depression.

It took me years to pinpoint the triggers for my migraines. Can you imagine the process that I had to go through to discover that the natural food colouring Annatto is guaranteed to bring on an episode? No Coca-Cola, cheap custard, or Red Leicester cheese for me! One time, when I was working as a teacher, my wife had to pick me up and take me home after I confiscated a bag of sweets from a child, ate one, and within minutes started seeing huge jagged shapes in my peripheral vision.

Karma.

These days, I’m more clued-up on the small changes that happen to my mind and body in the 24-36 hours before my first visual disturbance: I notice my body losing muscle tone; I start biting my nails; I want to be alone. It’s no coincidence that I’m writing this blog post in a room by myself with chewed-off nails. I’m expecting the aura anytime soon.

Wiseman describes her visual disturbances as:

[A] flickering blind spot in the centre of my vision. It starts small, a spinning black penny in the middle of a page. I slump in my seat as it spreads darkly over my sight like jam, and I can’t see, or think, or entirely understand speech. It’s the film melting in my projector – it’s a bit like falling.

My migraines are nowhere near as frequent or intense as they used to be. I avoid triggers such as specific food and drink, stay away from fluorescent lighting, ensure I get enough sleep, and make sure I drink enough.

When I worked at a university, my migraines were bad enough to find myself on the disability register. These days, they’re much more manageable, for three reasons:

  1. Medication — after many failed experiments in my twenties with preventative medication, I’ve discovered Rizatriptan Benzoate. These wafers, so long as I take them within the first few minutes of aura, mean I can get on with my day.
  2. Working from home — this has had many other benefits, but from the point of view of my migraines, it means that they no longer force me to take a day off work. If I have a migraine in the morning I can, so long as I take my medication, get back to work in the afternoon.
  3. Exercise — while I have to ensure I don’t become dehydrated, running, swimming and going to the gym help me not only with migraines in particular, but mental health more generally.

However, as the RAF Wing Commander correctly noted, stress is always a trigger of migraines. So, in a sense, I’m quite glad that my body has a very obvious system to force me to rest. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that intense, high-stress environments aren’t places where I can thrive.

I want to finish with a quotation from Eva Wiseman’s article:

Half of me knows my life would be simpler if I concentrated harder on looking inwards, and took on the part-time job of doctors’ appointments and pills. But the other half, the one that enjoys the sleepy curiosity of life with a migraine and those three long days of magical thinking, is less willing to try and define what is migraine, and what is me.

We’re often told to listen to our bodies, but in a very real sense, I don’t have much option. I’m not sure where my migraines end, and I begin.

Image by Lizzie at Unsplash

Gym’ll Fix It!

(This post is mainly going to be of benefit to UK-based readers of my blog. I’m not affiliated with PruHealth in any way!)

Hannah and I are big fans of the Money Saving Expert website run by Martin Lewis. He’s a minor celebrity in England, having his own TV programme (albeit on Five). If you haven’t already signed up for his weekly newsletter, I really would. 🙂

Last year, one thing he recommended was PruHealth. It’s a private health insurance scheme which rewards you for becoming, and remaining, healthy. We looked into it but really couldn’t afford it at the time. Also, with Ben having just been born, time wasn’t really something we had in abundance. Now, however, things are different. Life with Ben is a bit more calm and structured now and with my new position next year we’ll have (slightly) more disposable income.

Just to give you some idea of how good a deal this is for us in particular, it would cost £42 each to join the gym we’ve just signed up for. With the PruHealth scheme, our premiums are £27 each per month and we get the gym free! Granted, for the first 3 months it’s slightly more whilst they assess your usage, but if you average 2 or more sessions per week, all you pay is your health insurance premium from then on. If we do the health checks every 6 months and average around 2.5 sessions per week our premiums will more than halve. Yes, that’s right: next year we’ll probably both be going to the gym and have private health insurance for less than £25! 😀

I went for my initial PruHealth check and gym induction today. Much as Steve Dembo is doing with Wii Fit, I’m planning to post my fitness levels every so often. I used to post details of the GPS-tracked runs I did via my Nokia N95. I stopped that as soon as I realised people would be able to pinpoint exactly where I live (or used to live – we’re moving this month!) 😮

So, what follows is my baseline. Please bear in mind that I haven’t exercised more than about once per week since Ben was born (16 months ago), that I’m mildly asthmatic, and that I had a huge cup of coffee this morning! The latter probably explains my high blood pressure reading (hopefully…)

  • Weight: 81.4kg (171 pounds)
  • BMI: 23.2 (should be 20-25)
  • Blood Pressure: 139/89 (should be 120/80)
  • Pulse (after 3-minute step activity): 106 (lower = better)
  • VO2* Test: 38 (should be 42+)
  • Cooper’s Run**: 2.51km (further = better)

There’s a selection of gym’s to choose from, but our local one is Cannons Health Club in Doncaster. Alongside the gym, there’s a studio for various classes (I like the look of Body Attack – a combination of boxing and keep-fit), and a swimming pool, sauna, steam room, jacuzzi, etc. We’re all going after church tomorrow – Ben’s going to have weekly swimming lessons from his Daddy (I used to swim for my county many years ago…) 😉

With the advantages PruHealth gives us and with the requirement to go at least twice per week, this is a long-term deal which could just revolutionise the life of the Belshaw family!

*VO2 Test = volume of oxygen you can consume whilst exercising. This was tested by using a treadmill to walk for 3 minutes whilst measuring heart rate and taking into account age, height and weight.
**Cooper’s Run = the distance you can cover by running on a treadmill for 12 minutes.

Image: Quick Start by akeg @ Flickr

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