Mental illness is a collaboration: Karen Preene on Staying Sane

Karen Preene smiling to the side of the camera, against a pink background

As a Yoga teacher since 1999 and a practitioner since 1972, I followed many Yoga teachers who were working to increase inclusion and belonging for all bodies in the Yoga space.

In 2017, a teacher I followed, Amber Karnes, first shared her Body Positive Rebellion work. I signed up, and my mind was blown as I learned about diet culture and fatphobia.

As I explored more, I learned about the racist roots of diet culture, and about the systemic and individual harm caused by fat hatred and its impact on mental health—for people in non-conforming bodies who experience direct aggression, and also for all of us who have internalized fatphobia and the ideals of diet culture.

My next step was to read all the books and follow all the related Instagram hashtags. As I thendeadliftsandredlips logo explored the health at every size and anti-diet hashtags on Instagram, I met Karen Preene, @deadliftsandredlips.

Karen shares publicly about her mental health journey as a woman and as an entrepreneur, so I invited her to contribute to the Staying Sane series because I knew she had some wisdom to share.

In her story, below, Karen shares that she was diagnosed with postpartum depression 13 years ago. Then, a few years ago, she left the relationship she was in because it was abusive, and she experienced depression and anxiety.

As she says in the recording below, Karen experienced—and continues to experience–barriers to accessing mental health support. Because of that, she manages her mental health mostly on her own. As a result, she has developed powerful tools of her own that she shares with us in the recording below.

Removing stigma is what motivated Karen to share her story. “It helped me feel less alone when I saw others share their stories.”

This is an important point, one that Maggie Patterson also touches on in her mental health story. Maggie said, “Most people don’t have their shit together.” Karen points that out too, “These are common experiences, and knowing that, I felt seen.”

Part of the negative impact of mental health challenges is the stigma, and thus the effort it takes to keep it all in and show up looking “OK.”

Conversely, sharing, in a safe way and/or in a safe environment, can relieve some of the burdens and alleviate some of the impacts.

Karen also points out the power of acceptance and self-kindness. We all know that these are important skills, but the how of them often evades us.

 woman journalingLike Nechelle Bartley, Karen journals as part of her mental health self-care. She has a unique way of approaching the practice that includes Tarot as part of her self-therapy.

Listen in to hear more about Karen’s mental health story, how she practiced acceptance and self-kindness, and how that helped her.

She also shares how she cares for her mental health today, the main thing she wishes women entrepreneurs would know about mental health, and a tip for you to try.

If you prefer to read, here is the transcript of Karen’s recording. It has been slightly edited to make it easier to read and for clarity.

I’m Karen Preene. I’m in the West Midlands in the UK. And I am an anti-diet personal trainer and fitness instructor. I also like to refer to myself as an industry fitness industry. [I use the term] disrupter because we’re not very well accepted within the fitness industry. So I feel like part of my work is actually changing the culture of fitness.

My mental health story

My mental health story is that I was diagnosed originally with postnatal depression, 13 years ago now. That was my first official diagnosis and experience with mental illness. I received treatment for that. And then, following the breakdown of an abusive relationship, my depression manifested into anxiety as well. So then I received a diagnosis of depression and anxiety. And I received treatment for that, along with some counselling. I must admit, I don’t think that I’ve had adequate counselling. But that’s another conversation.

I live in the UK. Our mental health services are based on the NHS [National Health Service], and you have to meet certain criteria in order to access therapy. It’s not always the kind of therapy you may need. I haven’t been in a financially privileged position to be able to afford my own private therapy, which led me on to exploring ways to manage my mental illness myself.

I have previously been on medication. And it did help at the times that I needed it to help. But I’m not currently medicated, because I found that it was exacerbating my anxiety. And I was too anxious to try anything else. So that was the point where I took on exploring ways that I could manage things for myself.

Managing without medication is a privilege.

I’m privileged in the sense that I can manage without many medications. I know that many people can’t, and that medication is a supportive and therapeutic way for them to manage their mental illness. So this isn’t a discussion about whether medication is valid or not because of course, I do believe it is. But in my case, it wasn’t working.

Why mental health matters

Mental health matters to me because I live with it.

[Mental health] matters to me because I live with it. I’ve lived with it for 14 years now. It matters to meFree woman because it’s important for us to remove the stigma around mental health. Being able to talk about it openly, not feel shamed or judged, is going to lead to saving lives. People can feel like they’re included in the conversations and that they’re not alone. For me, that was the biggest motivator for sharing my story was when I started my exploration.[I needed to find] people who spoke out about mental illness, I didn’t feel so alone. I didn’t feel like it was all in my head. I realized that these things are common experiences, [although] not “normal” experiences of mental illness. So I felt seen, [not] so alone and unsupported. So that’s why it’s so important to me that I speak about mental illness and you know that it’s not a taboo subject.

It’s important to remove the stigma by talking about it. Removing stigma saves lives.

How do you care for your mental health today?

I took on the journey of exploring ways to manage my mental illness. That has been trying what works, discarding things that don’t, trying things again. I used alcohol in a way to self-medicate for a while until that stopped being healthy for me. That’s another thing: [how] we look at the ways that people may self-medicate. We judge them for that, whereas it might actually be the available, accessible option that’s there for them at that moment in time. So I’ve released a lot of shame around that. [I care for my mental health today by] working through feelings of shame, about the ways that we have to support ourselves, sometimes in a moment of crisis.

I was very, very sedentary because I had very low energy, I was so fatigued by my depression, that I would sit for hours. It got to the point where I couldn’t work. A way for me to manage my anxiety was to not do things. I was able to stay in a safe environment of not doing anything because then that didn’t pose any danger or threat. At that time, that’s what I needed to do to manage when the symptoms were so high.

Then slowly, things got better and I was able to see where those habits no longer supported me and [I was able] to explore other things, such as meditation, walking in nature, movement, exercise, talking to friends, sharing experiences, and Tarot.

I need to ways come back to myself.

I’m quite connected to the Tarot, I see the [cards] as a way for me to explore myself. I see them as journaling prompts, and they help me to explore my own emotions and feelings and become self-aware and be able to self-regulate. I can self-coach with the Tarot. So that has been very useful. I find it very grounding. I find it very supportive. It reminds me of coming back to myself. I always feel like I’m coming back to myself when I sit in meditation, or when I’m using my Tarot. So those are the main ways that I care for my mental health: meditation, movement, Tarot.

And one of my favourite things to do is watch ASMR [Autonomous sensory meridian response] in the evening, just before I go to bed.

The most helpful thing

The most helpful thing has been releasing the guilt and shame around my mental illness and the ways that I may have previously coped with my mental illness and getting through those crisis moments.

The main tip I have is acceptance. When I was first diagnosed with depression, and then anxiety, I was fixated on fixing myself to get better. [I thought,] “I have got to get over this. If I can just do this, this and this, then I won’t be depressed anymore. I just need to fight through this hardship. I just need to fight against this mental health. I just need to want it hard enough.” [It was] toxic positivity, and none of it worked.

Then I had to lean into: this isn’t going away. I may have periods where it’s in remission or not so active or there are times when my mental wellness is better. The times when it dips, sitting into that acceptance has really, really helped me with my journey. [Sitting into] accepting that this is a mental illness that is most likely going to affect me for the rest of my life in some way. So [I work] with it, rather than against it.

What’s the one thing that you could share about mental wellness with women entrepreneurs?

If you have mental illness and work with it, know that you’re going to have days when you haven’t got as much energy as others. For those days, make allowances for them.

Woman downtimeI structure my work in a way that gives me downtime and enough downtime. Especially women, I don’t think that we factor in intentional rest. We feel like we have to be juggling all the balls all the time. Yet without that intentional rest, it’s very hard for us to keep juggling those balls.

That was a big one for me: to release the shame and guilt about having days where I sometimes don’t do anything because I haven’t got the capacity for it. [I reframed it so] that I am doing something. I’m very intentionally restoring myself, recharging my batteries, allowing myself to have complete downtime, which then means that I can carry on doing the things that I need to do on the other days.

My mental illness and I collaborate with each other.

The way I am able to continue being a small business owner is by accepting a mental illness for what it is. I’m working alongside it and making allowances for the energy highs and the energy lows I suppose we collaborate with each other.

The main thing I would say is that I think that we need to work on removing the stigma from mental illness and talking about it more and moving into the position of acceptance and working with ourselves in collaboration rather than against ourselves.

More about Karen

Karen lives in the West Midlands, UK, and is an anti-diet personal trainer, fitness instructor and fitness industry disruptor. She works online, 1:1 and in groups, runs a Patreon community and hosts a Youtube channel.

yt| Karen Preene Deadlifts and Redlips 
ig |@deadliftsandredlips
patreon | Deadliftsandredlips

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About the author 

Shulamit Berlevtov  -  Shulamit (she/her) is the Entrepreneurs' Therapist. She is working passionately to mitigate the entrepreneurial mental health crisis through keynote speaking and educational workshops and by supporting women entrepreneurs 1:1 to care for their mental and emotional wellbeing and their money psychology in an era of relentless stressors that can make you want to lose your crap on the daily.

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