Beth McColl on How To Come Alive Again
Ahead of Mental Health Awareness Week 2019, we talk to Beth McColl about her new book How To Come Alive Again on navigating the good and bad days and the power of small goals
The world is changing. Every day, things are evolving. Life keeps coming at you fast, and when you're struggling with mental health, it can feel relentless and a pathway forward seems far from reach. How To Come Alive Again is that pathway – if not directly to the other side, it offers tangible steps to trying to find the breathing space in your life to pause, then persevere.
Beth McColl does this with a sense of hope and deep understanding, and a humour and warmth that doesn't force anything. It's willing to walk the long journey with its readers, step by step, as they learn self-acceptance, the ability to scrutinise what works and doesn't in their life, and coming alive again.
It’s a book about when you're anxious, when you're depressed, when you're having to put a brave face on it, chat about the latest Game of Thrones episode and pretend that everything is A-OK. It takes on big questions to the tiny details of your day, shares the truth on medication, practical advice on talking to doctors, and much more. Being imperfect and tripping up is part of the journey, and not a sign of failure; no judgement here. It's a book many of us could do with.
Self-care and small goals
“At the time, I really needed it myself,” explains McColl, on why she wanted to write the book. “I was 24, doing better than I had been, but still struggling with my own mental health in a way that needed a lot of attention and care. And I wanted to write something to myself and to anybody else, older or younger or my age, who needed a blueprint for that care from someone who knew the landscape.
"There were plenty of self-help books, and I’d read a lot of them, but they all seemed to be quite dogmatic or twee or worded in a way that skirted around the real, often unpleasant reality of living with a mental illness. The actual writing I found great,” she continues. “It was all a great reminder of what I knew to be true about illness and recovery and the really hopeful and good things that continue to exist even when you’re deep in depression.”
What’s striking is that in How To Come Alive Again, it all feels achievable, within reach. Often, we’re told ways to fix ourselves, turn our back on the darker days; here, the importance of the smaller goals is explored. “Often there is nothing but small goals,” she notes. “They make up the learning that lets us make the big changes and have them actually stick. Leaving the house for an hour every day for a few weeks may seem no big deal but it’s a way to demonstrate to a very unwell mind that you’re absolutely still capable of taking action and existing in the world, and doing the things that the unwell mind is insisting are impossible.”
Within this, the book prepares readers for both good days and bad. “Humans are not built to be happy all of the time. You’re not failing or glitching when you have a bad day. It’s entirely normal and it just has to be survived. Eat, hydrate, rest, get through it. It’s a fact of existence to dip into these places sometimes, so resist the story that your brain is telling you about it being evidence of how fucked up you are. That’s nonsense. And on good days you do the same, you exist in them, you accept them for what they are, you hold them gently and you let them happen.”
Mental Health and Social Media
It's difficult to discuss mental health today without touching on social media – there are many blanket takes on how it should or shouldn't be used. But for McColl, it’s about individual balance. “Social media is a space where we spent a great deal of time, so it’s important to monitor it and curate it to make sure that it’s not a place that’s doing active damage,” McColl explains. “It’s a space of community and information and fun – but it’s also a space of unkindness and cruelty and all kinds of shocking content. Take it seriously as a thing that can both help and hinder your mental health.
"Make sure that at least part of the day is spent totally logged off, and do regular audits of the kind of accounts that you’re following. I found that actually there was zero need for me to follow supermodels or most celebrities on Instagram. These profiles are so often a fiction of what a body can look like, or what a life should be, and it was making my own messy, difficult, but often quite lovely life seem small. So I unfollowed anyone who didn’t feel inspiring or honest and it’s been a great change.”
The idea of permission stands out as one of the most important takeaways in Beth's writing; breaking the mould of what you’re expected to do, and forgiving yourself for perceived missteps. Getting there can be a long journey, particularly in dark times. On the impact of self-permission and forgiveness, she recalls: “It wasn’t until I was writing this chapter that I really became aware of just how much I’d beaten myself up for. The most harmless things were fuel for my self-hatred, and that was a miserable waste of my life. And I’m not at all angry about it, I’m just sad for myself, and also so glad to be here now and not there.
"Joy is allowed in my life, rest is allowed, food is allowed, sex is allowed. Working to remove that constant scolding voice has been hard and long work, but it’s freed up so much time to be curious and patient and self-improving.”
"I hope that the book is a reminder that we're allowed to laugh about mental illness, to be open about it"
Beth is clear in outlining that her experiences are just that – hers. She doesn't try to paint a one-size-fits-all approach to mental health, but offers as much advice as someone who has been through it can, bringing tangible stepping stones for people to try themselves. It's a book without judgement, and brimming with support, wit and relatable notes that make the potential of getting through that next day with a bit more confidence feel all the more graspable. The creation of the book has been a journey for Beth McColl, but its impact is only beginning. What does she hope people take from How To Come Alive Again?
“I hope people are reminded of what they may already know, I hope people learn a thing or two about how to care for themselves or the people they love. I hope that the book is a reminder that we're allowed to laugh about mental illness, and we're allowed to be open about it, and ask for support without shame.
“I hope people feel less as though they're battling this vast and all-powerful monster, and more as though this is just a set of symptoms and maladaptive behaviours that we can all learn to live with and work around and adjust to and change. I hope that it's a reminder of how many of us feel this nameless, terrible way, and that the system is set up entirely wrong but that there are ways we can navigate it, and that we've never been less deserving of care or support or opportunities even when that's what's been demonstrated time and time again.
“I hope people find some small hope in it, even just a single thing that reminds them that that there's always something else to try.”