Choose a card, any card...

Kevin is the founder of Torchlight System, a publication based on the personal story of Kevin’s breakdown and his journey to recovery. Alongside the publication he also created ‘Practice Cards’, which ‘make a game out of getting better’. The set of cards give suggestions which can help people suffering from anxiety or depression. Zoë from Anxiety Empire asked Kevin a few questions about the cards...

Hey Kevin, can you share how the idea of the practice cards came about?

I’d been living in Berlin up to 2014 when I suffered a major depressive episode and was suicidal. I was taken to hospital and eventually came back to the UK (where I’m from) to recover. At the time I was looking around for things that might help me deal with these problems of depression and anxiety, and kept finding really interesting activities, ideas, hacks and so on. I was reading a lot and listening to what people had to say. So I started doing a lot of these things, sort of bootcamping myself to get better, but I was soon overwhelmed with too many things so I decided to take a different tack: I wrote down all these different things – practices, I called them – on index cards and decided to try and one or two every day at random. This seemed like a better strategy. It’s a bit like the Make Your Bed trick, which I guess you know. If you’re suffering with mental illness, then make sure that every day you make your bed after you get out of it. Then, at the end of the day, you’ll know that you achieved at least one thing.

Yes, I’ve only recently started making my bed in the morning (at the ripe old age of 39!). For me it’s not so much about looking back at the end of the day, but more about starting off the day feeling I can stick to things and follow through on things that I have set my mind on. I never used to like making my bed, but now I enjoy looking back at it as I leave the bedroom.

It sounds like you noticed a difference from using the cards?

The important thing was to make a habit of doing something every day, but also not putting too much pressure on myself to instantly get better. I had the feeling that if these things were helping me, they would probably help others too so when we came to publish the Torchlight publication which is a memoir of this breakdown and recovery, we decided to produce and offer these Practice Cards too.

The cards have really helped me through the slow process of getting over this episode, which has been ongoing for a few years now, with periods of feeling very low and others of feeling generally okay, stable and able. The most valuable thing is how the cards show that there isn't one single thing that helps me (or anyone), instead there are many that can help in all sorts of ways, and rather than being rigid and regimented, it's good to shake things up and throw anything and everything at the problem. There are some big themes in the cards: getting back in your body by doing physical things, connecting with others, doing creative work such as writing and speaking, along with common sense stuff such as going to bed early.

That’s a really good reminder also about how recovery, or learning to live with depression, is often not a ‘fix’ but often a process of acceptance and making changes to our lifestyles to help and support ourselves. How often do you use the cards?

A lot of what is contained in the cards is, when I’m functioning well at least, integrated into my life: going running, practicing tai chi, writing, walking, staying sober, giving and so on. But I when notice that I’m in a mild slump it’s often time to pick the cards up and start using them a bit more often. It's worth saying that some cards are cues rather than specific instructions, although they can be used that way too. I mean there are cards for the yoga sun salutation and some tai chi techniques (Cloud Hand and the Pillar Pose) and while these are worth learning, the message is that doing anything physical – swimming, cycling, dancing – will achieve the same effect, which is to dissolve thinking back into the body. Motion reduces tension; this is something which Cut D’Amato, who was Mike Tyson’s coach, said, and it's true. To put it another way, there’s something Tony Robbins said: “The fastest way to change your psychology is through your physiology.” This is why a lot of the cards are to do with movement, and this is especially useful for people who are dealing with anxiety.

My struggle with many types of self-care seems to be to keep it up in times when my mental health feels ok - it's only when I see things are slipping, or when they've already slipped to a difficult place, that I take better care of myself. I'm sure it's beneficial to keep using the cards even during the better times, but do you have tips on how to achieve this?

I don’t because, to speak personally, if I’m functioning well I’d prefer to just go about my day and live my life and not worry about the (inevitable, in my case) onset of depression or anxiety. As I said, some of the practices are to some extent automatic these days - making sure I go for a run a couple of times every week, making sure I'm interacting with others and doing creative work, staying aware and mindful – then usually that’s enough. I mean, I’m not sure that “mental health” is really a thing - more it’s the absence of what I see as mental illness. In other words, I think it's very easy to become anxious by worrying about the possibility of being anxious in the future, so the thing is to just try to enjoy life as and when you can, but build a practice that can assist if and when difficult periods arrive. Sometimes it’s good to be mindless, as well as mindful.

There are two types of cards: ‘Action’ cards which encourage people to do something, and ‘Idea’ cards which encourage people to think about something. It's recommended that people pick one Action Card, and one Idea Card...I can imagine different personalities find one of these easier than the other (I prefer the action ones). Why is it recommended that people try both?

The Action Cards are cues for activity, while the Idea Cards are things that can be meditated upon or visualised. The emphasis in the Practice Cards is building your own practice which means both doing things – being proactive – but also not to be constantly active and over-motivated. It's good to be reflective and passive too, which is where the Idea Cards come in.

Two of the cards in the pack are blank - one Action Card, and one Idea Card - would you share what you have written on your own blank ones?

That’s a great question. For the ‘Action’ I’d say learning a speech from Shakespeare and reciting it when I’m walking. It’s a good way to mobilise the voice, because when I'm anxious or depressed I notice that one of the first things to go is my voice: I stop speaking. For the ‘Idea’ card, the famous Yin/Yang dualism is something I'm interested in at the moment, having learned more about it from practicing tai chi. There are lots of ways to understand this idea, but in one way, Yin is about closing (introversion) and Yang is about opening (extroversion). Actually these practices are included in the Volume 2 of the cards, which we have recently published.  

Which is your favourite card? And the one you find the hardest?

My favourite card is a blue Idea Card, "Chop Wood Carry Water”: it's an epithet from Zen buddhism which just means, keep doing the mundane everyday stuff: make your bed, do your work, fetch and carry. Stay grounded and stay on top of things.

Most people pull a face when they draw the Cold Shower card, understandably. However, cold showers - or going for a chilly dip - is really good way to deal with depression in particular. I also like it when I get the Smile Card, because it reminds me do to that. Usually I walk around with a grumpy expression on my face but smiling is a good way to connect you to other people. I don’t mean forcing yourself to be happy, but just smiling because it might make other people happy.

Thanks so much Kevin. And, dear readers, if you would like to get some Practice Cards of your own they are available to buy on the torchlight system site with Volume 2 available soon :)