THE 2 SIDES OF FARMING WITH MENTAL ILLNESS
MENTAL ILLNESS DOES NOT DEFINE YOU
I have a historic battle with anxiety and depression, my depression started when I was in my mid-teens and my anxiety started in my early twenties. I do not allow either of my mental illnesses to define me however, and I prefer to see them as an inconvenient illness, than part of my identity. I know I am one of the lucky ones because I do not continually experience either, I just have episodes, usually triggered by stress. Unfortunately, stress is part of life and whatever you try to do to limit it, it will always be present therefore I know I am never really going to be completely free of either.
ANIMALS LOVE UNCONDITIONALLY
In January 2017 I started my own business, running an educational smallholding in Essex with goats, sheep, pigs and poultry. The new project gave me something to focus on, away from my mental health, it did however also bring with it a whole heap of stress and uncertainty, the two biggest triggers for my issues. My enthusiasm for the business to work, combined with my very hectic schedule getting the farm set up, meant I did not have time to worry about the uncertainty of its future and I thrived on the pressure of getting everything ready for my first open day. It was also fantastic for my mental health to be working outdoors, especially as I find my depression is heavily influenced by the amount of time I spend in the sunshine. Working with the animals, who love unconditionally and give you a reason to get up and out of bed every morning was superb therapy for me.
QUALITY OVER QUANTITY
It wasn’t until my first year had ended that I had time to sit back and reflect on what had been such a busy, rewarding and chaotic time. I felt so proud of how far I had come and was impressed at all the targets I had managed to complete in just my first 12 months. Suddenly however, I was constantly being asked ‘what’s next?’, ‘where now?’ and it brought on my anxiety. I had spent so long setting the business up, running the sessions and keeping the animals healthy and happy, that I hadn’t thought of my next steps. Before I knew it, Winter was upon me and with it returned the depression. Add on the huge amount of personal change I was experiencing at the time and my sudden hike in financial outlay (winter feeding for my livestock), I felt awash with responsibilities. I couldn’t see a way out of the constant demands of the animals and hated the hold they had over me to be at home. Isolating myself is not good for my mental health, and with it already being quite fragile, having to be at home to care for the animals just worsened the situation. Although the animals had once brought me such joy and focus suddenly it felt like they were dragging me down and wearing me out. I hid away from the problems and decided to bury my head rather than face reality, that I really needed to downsize and focus on the quality of my smallholding rather than the quantity of animals that I owner.
“AN EXTENDED PART OF MY FAMILY”
It wasn’t until the land owners mentioned that they felt I could not cope with the farm anymore that I realised how much I wanted to keep my business running and keep it as my own. I used that conversation to spur myself into action, I cut down the number of animals that I had on the farm – selling some of my sheep and pigs to fellow smallholders. Although that didn’t change the fate of the land that my farm is based on, it has given me the confidence to rebuild my business elsewhere but this time in a way that I can completely control and focusing on quality rather than quantity. My positive attitude towards the farm has returned, the panic attacks I would experience daily before going to feed the animals have gone and I feel I can clearly see my future plan and what I can do to work towards it. Being around my animals once again brings me joy and I do not see them as a financial and physical burden but instead as an extended part of my family. I live alone and my boyfriend often works away so to have their company and the responsibility of their care is great for me and my mental health. I find my sheep in particular so relaxing to be around and their placid natures and undemanding characters are perfect for bringing me out of a panic during anxiety or for cheering me up during a depressive episode.
Although I have had my ups and downs during the past 18 months of having my animals, I know that as long as i do not let the farm get too big for me again that they will provide me with something to focus on and raise my spirits during my down times. I have an uncertain and stressful few months ahead of me as I move the farm and set up the business once again but this time I have a short-term and long-term plan to base my actions on and I know exactly what situations to avoid in the future. I just have to keep reminding myself of ‘quality over quantity’ and to also be honest when I have reached my limit, not to bury my head in the sand because that will only ever make things worse.