Peace, prejudice and pugilism.

Be afraid: I’ve started going to boxing classes. It’s all part of Mind’s ‘Get Set to Go‘ program, which aims to improve the lives of 75,000 people with mental health problems through access to sport in their communities. I think Therapist #1 might have been right when he kept going on about me having issues with anger – on my first go I punched the training bag so hard I sprained my hand.

Exercise has always helped my mood when I’m not feeling too bad, but what’s different with the class is that there’s an accountability that gets me out of the house when I’m not in a good place. I meet my friend there and the coordinator’s worked really hard at setting up the program – it’d be rude to stay in bed. And even on bad days I feel better for going – still desperate to return to the safety of my home, but not quite as defeated by the constant nagging in my head that being dead would be brilliant. In five weeks I’ve only had to leave one class early because I couldn’t cope: this is huge for me.

In addition to making me feel less like wanting to remove myself from the face of the planet, what’s really surprised me is the knock-on effect boxing’s had on other aspects of my life. I recently got my first road bike. Having never ridden one before, I’ve struggled to get to grips with the totally different biking experience it inflicts on me. To begin with I was so terrified that I couldn’t move my hands from the death grip I was holding the entirely alien drop handlebars with. This meant that breaking was tricky and changing gear night on impossible – inconvenient when you live in a hilly part of the country. I cycled to boxing in a state of sheer terror but as I got back on my bike to come home I realised that all my anxiety had disappeared. I could move my hands like there was nothing to it and I changed gear without getting off. Incredible – and now I have the memory of being able to do it, I can keep doing it. Sometimes I move my hands around the handlebars just because I can, it serves no other purpose.

With much trepidation me and a friend joined the women’s boxing training squad last night. I had to take care of myself during the day to make sure my nerves didn’t get the better of me but I needn’t have worried. The trainer seems to get what a big step it was for us and looked out for us all the way – his understanding made the world of difference. It’s made me reflect on the disabling nature of mental health issues and how much of that is caused by society and other people’s attitudes, rather than the illnesses themselves.

I often beat myself up (occasionally on a very literal basis) for not being able to leave my house. It feels utterly pathetic that a 41 year old woman finds the world too scary to be part of. The thing is, the world is scary for me. I’ve endured regular verbal attacks from people who think it’s fine to mete out their prejudiced views on MH issues, met with disapproval for the herculean efforts it’s taken me to walk to the local shop or turn up for appointments and have my thoughts and feelings summarily dismissed on an almost daily basis. Yes, I know it might seem stupid that I sit in my porch for hours before getting past the front door, but telling me I’m ‘just being silly’ isn’t very helpful…

If I was surrounded by a society that accepted me for who I am right now, asked questions to understand rather than be so quick to judge or could acknowledge the effort it takes just to keep on surviving, then I’d probably be in a much better place. The shame people make you feel eats you up until you have no energy left to fight. I’ve tried telling myself that ‘people who matter don’t mind’ but it doesn’t really work when any interaction can lead to being derided for who you are, or have your experiences reduced to nothing.

It’s not just the general public either. I once found the courage to disclose to a support worker that years ago I’d been in an abusive relationship and her response was to tell me that she used to work in a refuge ‘with women who’d been properly beaten’. Won’t be talking about it again any time soon. On the plus side it does all mean that when I’m at boxing I have a catalogue of situations (OK, and people) that I can pretend I’m punching but it hardly makes recovery easy – it’s difficult to own your story when it’s constantly being invalidated.

Every day is a struggle. On some days the fight seems easier than others but it’s still a tough round to get through. I know that the demons in my own head are my toughest opponent, but when I have to focus on fighting the ignorance of a society that doesn’t want to understand, I’m distracted and those demons win every time.

So come on, I’m asking nicely: Don’t be so quick to judge others, try to walk in their shoes for a while before deciding what to say. It makes the world of difference. Peace or prejudice? it’s your choice – every day, every interaction, every connection you make. And until we all choose peace, I’m going for pugilism.

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