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Agility and Mental Health

Bravely, Jess has agreed to Everything Agility publishing her struggles with mental health. I am so familiar with the ‘symptoms’ she lists and I suspect many of you reading this will be, too. With so much emphasis on mental health today, and with it being championed by none other than the Sussexes (Harry and Meghan) and Cambridges (Will and Kate) it’s surely time that we broke the taboo, came out of the closet, and become a lot more comfortable talking about how we really feel, and what a very hard, lonely slog life can be at times, even when you’re apparently surrounded by people who care about you.

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I’m Jess and I live in a little cottage with my fabulous fiance and 3 collies. You may already know Alf (above) after seeing his photo on a wide variety of dog-related products, websites and brochures, or you may already know me through either Agility or my “day job” in marketing and digital design. Either way, you probably don’t know a lot about my back story, my mental health or how I ended up in the Agility world.

The aim of this post, for me, is to open up about something that most people will not know about me in an attempt to a) make it easier for other people to feel safe discussing mental illness, and b) let people who are suffering know that there is always light at the end of the tunnel, and it does get better.

I’ve lived my life so far with a deep-seated feeling that I simply do not fit in with “normal people”. I’m an introvert by nature, which means I gather energy from being alone instead of around other people, and I don’t “socialise” well, because I find small-talk a bit odd really. The deep stuff floats my boat much more! I’ve always found that I don’t have any best friends, just lots of different friendship groups which I neither sit inside or outside of, I’m just a bit of a floater.

I had an unstable childhood which featured different psychological traumas, and after multiple incorrect diagnoses, it was actually an agility friend who suggested that complex post-traumatic stress disorder (or C-PTSD) would probably more appropriate.

As it turns out, C-PTSD and I go way back and this diagnosis suits me far better than any other. I’ve seen a few fantastic therapists who have fitted me into this mental health box, and as a general rule, I’m relieved to know that I am not in this alone and that it is more normal than I’d previously known. C-PTSD is a bit like PTSD but instead of displaying as physical re-trauma, it’s all emotional. The definition is:

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD; also known as complex trauma disorder, or developmental trauma disorder in children) is a psychological disorder thought to occur as a result of repetitive, prolonged trauma involving sustained abuse or abandonment by a caregiver or other interpersonal relationships with an uneven power dynamic.

My C-PTSD-causing trauma started before I was 3 and has continued up until quite recently. It included some caregivers and some intimate partners, and I’ve only just got a real handle or understanding of what exactly this does to me day in day out.

Plainly speaking, it affects me in everything I do. I don’t go out a lot and socialise, I find it pretty tricky to work in offices with all the social politics and I really struggle being in a group of the same people week in week out for months at a time. That’s because my mind is on hyperalert 24/7 (yes it affects my sleep) and it believes, unequivocally, that people are not safe. You can’t trust people. People hurt you. It’s safer to be by yourself – that’s the underlying message.

My inner circle of people who I trust with my emotional health contains less than 4 people. Everyone else, no matter how hard I might try, stay at arms length. For them, it’s usually a bit odd, for me, it’s really isolating, but for my mind, it’s infinitely safer. Think of all your interpersonal relationships, friendships and romantic relationships as if they were professional or business-like relationships – you don’t get too close, but you still try to help everyone and work with people as best you can from a respectable distance. That’s me.

The symptoms of C-PTSD can include:

  1. Inability to regulate emotions
  2. Depression, denial, fear of abandonment, thoughts of suicide, anger issues
  3. Low self-esteem, panic attacks, self-loathing
  4. Perfectionism
  5. Chronic hypervigilance
  6. Loss of faith in humanity, distrust, isolation, inability to form close personal relationships
  7. Intense shame and/or guilt
  8. Flashbacks, memory repression, dissociation
  9. Chronic pain
  10. Cardiovascular & Gastrointestinal problems.
  11. Migraines

Pretty deep, right?

Thankfully, through years and years of self-help work, I have most of the above list completely under control, though it does take an insane amount of effort to hold it together. Through therapy in the past couple of years, all of my repressed memories have been brought back, dealt with and overcome. The chronic pain and migraines I battle maybe twice a month, but again, I’ve got it nailed.

There’s one thing from that list that I can’t battle with, but I have worked out how to use to my benefit – the hypervigilance. You see, I learnt quickly that, as my mind works to find safety, it problems solves all the time. Within a second or two of meeting new people, my head has worked out who is safe and genuine, who is not, what are all of the possible ways this situation could play out and, ultimately, how do I get from A to B. Although C-PTSD effects every single aspect of my life, this is probably the best and worst bit.

It’s exhausting living with such a heightened fight or flight response, and it makes going to sleep really tricky, but in my business of marketing and design, it finds solutions to client problems just as effectively. This almost obsessive need to problem solve and learn different ways from A to B is probably the single best skill I have and it means I’m (thankfully to my clients) really really good at what I do. It’s also pretty handy when you hit a brick wall with training! There’s always a positive, right?!

Over the years my coping mechanisms have developed enormously. As a teenager, they were quite immature and involved either avoidance or anger. Now, as an adult, they are far more complex but also far more effective. From how my mind works, social groups are terrifying. Rationally, I’m fine in a social group, but emotionally, I’m like a child at a kids birthday party. Dogs, however, have always been my safety net.

My childhood was spent with Labradors and horses, but after a riding injury, the latter dropped out of the picture overnight. With no personal identity to cling to, I felt lost for years… Until I met Alfie. Alf came home and by the time he was 11 weeks, I was at the lowest I’d ever been. I had crippling social anxiety bordering on agoraphobia and no idea what to do to make my emotional self ok.

By the time he was about 16 weeks old, he was so strongly in tune with my emotional state, he could manipulate it by altering his behaviour. In times when I was in utter despair, he could make me laugh. In times when I felt empty and hollow, he could create real feelings again. And in times when I disassociated (shut down from the present/real-life), he could pull me right back into the here and now like nothing I’d ever experienced before. Essentially, he was a self-trained emotional assistance dog, and he’s never let me down yet.

He was and still is a perfect photography model, but we played at agility too. I didn’t have a good foundation of agility myself and I effectively self-taught us both. Some of it went really well, other bits didn’t go well. My perfectionist needs paired with low self-esteem meant that when we did compete, I had to win – more for myself than anything else. It meant that I didn’t keep his criteria as a baby and, as a result, we have probably the worst in-competition contacts you’ll ever see. He wins jumping rounds regularly but we’ve yet to get out of grade two due to his contacts. My bad, I learnt my lesson!

After getting myself, finally, into a good, stable and safe place both physically and emotionally, training and competing Alf has become less about the end result and more about the journey. I don’t need to prove anything to anyone (I have to still remind myself this!), and actually, it’s more important to just enjoy our time together.

This is the mentality that I’m taking forward with Pip (above), who is Alf’s niece. Training isn’t about getting somewhere the quickest way possible, it’s about focusing on the small wins, the little things and remembering to always strive for progress, not perfection.

The dogs keep me calm because you don’t get progress when you’re stressing. They keep me patient because you don’t get progress when you’re angry. But more importantly, they keep me safe from feeling alone – when I can’t be close to humans, they’re always there.

Socially, shows, training days and camps all still make me anxious, but not like they used to. If I don’t know anyone at an event, I’ll probably be on edge the whole time, which shows a little in the dogs performance as well as the way I run. But I’m now able to apply positive self-talk, controlled breathing and a specific warm-up routine which helps to relieve some of the tension.

The queue is a sticking point for me as the close proximity to other people with my half-wild collie can send me into a spiral that ruins my whole day, weekend or week. You may recognise me from a show as the one saying, “Please could you hold my space whilst I wait over here?”. Stepping out of the queue brings my focus away from people and back to my teammate, which, in my opinion, is infinitely more important than waiting nicely in line!

The question is, have I cured my C-PTSD through drugs, therapy or agility? No, and I never will, but I’m not too concerned about this because I have a deep understanding of how it affects my reactions to daily situations and I know how to harness those reactions and turn them into positive outcomes. It just takes time.

Remember, strive for progress, not perfection.

If you can relate to Jess’ story, then you may find her recommended reading list of help. The first book should be read first, she says.

The books are:
1. C-PTSD – From Surviving to Thriving: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00HJBMDXK/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_d_asin_title_o03?ie=UTF8&psc=1

2. The Body Keeps Score: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00IICN1F8/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_d_asin_title_o02?ie=UTF8&psc=1

3: Running on Empty: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B009VJ4B4C/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_d_asin_title_o07?ie=UTF8&psc=1

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