Empty time used to engender huge guilt in Alex Williams but now she has learned to let herself “just be”
An important aspect of life is letting yourself “just be”, be comfortable with yourself and have free time. This is more difficult for those of us who, due to our personality type, have set our standards too high or take on too much.
I have always been driven. This became unhealthy when my anorexia began as a teenager. Even though my concentration and body were failing I studied in the library for as long as it was open each day. By planning what academic books I could borrow next I avoided thinking about my health. I passed four A Levels – three at grade B – despite weighing six stone.
Cinema, theatre and television seemed frivolous. I didn’t deserve to watch them and I was self-disciplined so could do without them. Volunteering at a Citizens Advice outlet was a significant point in my recovery from mental health problems but it has become the only part of my identity I recognise. My self-worth has been equal to how long I stay on any one day or whether I fill in a form for a client. If I have any spare time I worry what to do and am scared of the emotions I may face.
I need my time to be structured and any change in routine causes me great anxiety. If appointments are cancelled I feel lost.
Chronic feelings of emptiness and boredom are a symptom of borderline personality disorder (BPD). It feels like a void inside you. Self-harm and eating disorders, which often co-exist with BPD, are simply a distraction.
You keep yourself occupied through hurting yourself. I feel a huge anxiety about empty time in case I resort to old coping strategies to fill it. At the same time apathy due to my mood problems demotivates me and I feel guilty about the things I should be doing.
Time has dragged for me throughout most of my illness. When eating disordered I have watched the clock waiting for the next time I could eat.
Socialising still feels unnatural. It is as though I should be doing something more productive. I feel it is self-indulgent to spend time doing nothing but talking. Bank holidays and Christmas have always been more difficult than normal days. From the ages of 19 to 26 I was in hospital or residential care every Christmas since it was my most unsafe time. Being on my own could feel intolerable and I would be at a loss what to do with myself when local shops were closed. Now, I discuss in advance with my support workers how to spend the time. It is still activity-based but is aimed at relaxation and satisfaction.
I no longer feel time is working against me. I can have days when I do nothing and do not give myself a hard time over it. I do less voluntary work at the moment and am exploring myself through homework set by my community psychiatric nurse. I try to relax, read trashy magazines or flick through a newspaper. It may seem lazy but for me it is a big achievement.
Alex Williams is a volunteer and mental health service user