Maintaining self-care can be challenging against the backdrop of a busy personal and professional  life and the struggle to maintain good mental health, writes Ultan Molloy  

Workplace wellness seems to have well and truly caught on as a ‘thing’ in recent years. The ‘suck it up, it’s your job’ brigade are no doubt losing staff by the dozen, given what a recruiter recently referred to as an ‘overheated’ jobs market. Maybe now is “the winter of our discontent”, to quote someone who wrote it before. It’s hit-and-miss as to whether the context is correct, given my struggles with English as a subject in secondary school. 

We may be at the top of another economic cycle, after the crash in the late noughties, and employment is close on record lows. Embracing our new religions of capitalism, individualism and consumerism, it appears to be all about more, more, more, rather than a focus on comfort and gratitude for what we have. A healthier mindset that is often more prevalent during leaner times. Trump, Farage and now fluffy-haired Boris seem to have tapped into an unfortunate underlying feeling of fear that ‘there’s not enough to go around’. 

As I struggle to avoid calories on a daily basis, the only ‘more, more, more’ I want at the moment is more sleep. Our two-year-old Neillí makes plans for night-time parties and early mornings, about which she repeatedly forgets to give me a heads-up. Increased calorie intake is often a result of tiredness, so with other commitments, it’s all a bit of a challenge. Neither do I feel like exercising when tired, as I don’t feel physically or mentally able for it, and motivation can be low without some momentum around same. I’ve signed-up for a half-marathon on 10 August, just to put some sort of a focus on a goal for some training. My waning motivation and lack of a robust daily routine, along with perhaps some laziness and a plethora of excuses to do other things, has this endeavour taking up a disproportionate amount of brain space. Those things, along with the fact that I don’t particularly like the process or effort of running, are the cause of this ruminating. Not exercising, however, really isn’t an option for me. 

I’ve struggled with maintaining positive mental health since my teens. I can relate to Stephen Fry, when he so beautifully describes being “lost in the dense blackness of an unfriendly forest thick with brambles, dense undergrowth, and hostile creatures of my own making” for much of his childhood and youth. Perhaps being particularly sensitive, the oldest child, or some other such privilege, I chose to disengage from my feelings at some point in order to focus on the tasks to hand, and push on through whatever came up on a day-to-day basis. Anyone who has any interest, insight or experience in the area of mental health will appreciate that while this may be effective as a short-term coping mechanism, it’s not a recipe for long-term alignment, personal integration and contentment. One has to process one’s feelings and life experiences. The good stuff, as well as the more challenging content. We must integrate our thinking, our feeling and our doing. The cost of not doing this is evident on a daily basis when we meet friends, family, patients and customers. Psychological projection, lack of self-awareness, mental health challenges, and the effects of stress are all very much part of what we are presented with both as human beings, and in our role as pharmacists. We have daily visits from some patients in our practice (perhaps it’s a practice, or a business) and customers (are they patients or customers? Perhaps they’re people) who are lonely. Indeed, I know we are the closest thing to family in the locality for one chap, and that’s okay. 

Anyway, so back to workplace wellness. Alan Quinlan, former Ireland and Munster Rugby player, talked about sharing his mental health challenges at a DeCare Dental Wellness event I attended recently. He said he did so, so that others may feel it’s okay to share their challenges. A shared humanity, if you will. Alas, I’ve not played for Ireland, but I know there are at least a couple of dozen or so people reading this who may find this piece interesting, somewhat relatable or even empowering. 

What I think was, and may still be to a lesser degree, a hostility bias in a socially-awkward teenager (are there any other types?) with a definite preference for introversion made my university time in London exhausting. I wanted some mental and physical space, and very little of it was forthcoming in London. That’s not to say I didn’t want to connect. I wanted a handful of good friends, which I thankfully have now, whom I trust implicitly. I can be vulnerable around them without fear of abuse or insensitivity, which for me cultivates a real and wholesome connection. If you want to ramble on about the weather sometime should we meet, I really am not your man. 

In London, I didn’t exercise past renewing a pool lifeguard qualification to get a job, I smoked heavily and I drank to excess, although I think the latter was obligatory at the time. It’s taken many years to make the now obvious connection between exercise and mental health. I love those handful of endorphins. I need them. Just two or three runs a week, but their absence means I begin to feel like the tail is wagging the dog. Clarity goes. Perspective goes. The little things start to feel like the big things. I forget what’s most important to me and how I want to spend my time. Thankfully, I have a fantastic partner and friends who are encouraging and supportive. You know who you are. I’d like to say my two- and three-year-olds are onside also, but as my father said jokingly more recently, they’ll sense when you’re at your most vulnerable and that’s when they’ll kick off. They do give us a lot back, in so many ways. Sure, what else am I going to say?

Oh, and SSRIs folks, to share an experience of a couple of months. They were great at bringing up the baseline mood. The lows weren’t as low, but the highs also went. There was no colour in my life experience. I was numbed out. I felt I couldn’t feel. It was like a part of me was ‘taken away’, so I couldn’t stay on them. I knew there had to be a different way. 

Many conversations later, I’m sitting overlooking our beautiful Atlantic ocean in the sunshine typing this. It feels somewhat like I’m writing about someone else. I’m 43 now, with a fair bit of water under the bridge. I feel today like I have it fairly sussed by anyone’s standards, although maintaining contentment on an ongoing basis is very much a case of maintaining balance in my many roles. Life is not a static experience. 

“Presenter lost credibility when he said he hadn’t it all sussed”, to paraphrase some feedback a colleague had after delivering a day-long course on wellness. Seriously, do people think this way? Keep going to Tony Robbins seminars, you folks. Pay him lots of money. Look for a quick-fix or fix-all solution. Live like he does. He’ll get you sorted! 

All I can be sure of is that self-assuredness can create as many if not more problems for people as personal insecurity can. There’s a sweet spot in the middle, and that’s where I’m aiming for. λ