It is one year since I last took an antidepressant, and I am going to celebrate – not because I feel wonderful and am bursting with elation, but because I want to rub depression’s face in it.
I’m going to celebrate because I do not want this milestone to pass without pausing to reflect on it. And that’s the kind of celebration it will be – a quiet, reflective one. Armed with a posh hot chocolate, I have sat myself down to write my first blog post for a couple of months, mainly out of sheer stubbornness (I put this evening aside to write, so that is what I am doing) but also because I get the feeling Paul Brookes – the name I give my depression – doesn’t want me to. And I will not let him have his way any more.
It has, at times, and for some prolonged periods, been a tough year without Citalopram, which was, after all, my constant companion for three-and-a-half years, and there have been moments when I’ve been very close to reuniting with it.
Brookes has lined up his henchmen, stress and anxiety, and sent them round to rough me up on a number of occasions, thinking that when they’ve given me a beating he can sneak back in. And he has come very close to doing just that.
The difference between now and five years ago, when he crept up on me for the first time, or three years ago, when he reappeared with brute force, is that I am wise to his ways. I can hear his stealthy footsteps. I can see his shadow on the wall. I can sense his malicious presence.
The fear is still the same. He still scares me. The innate caveman instincts of fight and flight kick in – I want to run away from my troubles, and end up fighting those henchmen day after day.
But, to a certain extent, I know what to do about it. I have learned how to look after myself. That’s all very well, but the trick I have yet to master is how to remember and do those things when I’m feeling weary, worn down, battered and lethargic, or when my stress levels are threatening to make my eyes pop out.
In those times when Brookes attacks, I need more than my natural fight and flight instincts, so I am building up a virtual box of tricks – some emergency rations for my well-being, and some weapons against the dark one’s powers. To outfox my enemy, this box will need to be crammed full of quickly accessible wisdom and self-care. I will need ways of reminding myself what is in the box, and ways of remembering to look inside it.
The first thing to go in the box will be a bit of self-praise. Well done, Paul. You did it. You made it through a year without Citalopram, hard though it may have been at times. And you wrote this blog when you really couldn’t be bothered.
The second thing will be to look back on all the good things that have happened, which can be too easy to forget. Good job I keep a book of such things (note to self – remember to look at it).
Oh yeah, and Brookes? I may not be jumping for joy, but I’m not dancing to your tune either. And if that isn’t worth celebrating, I don’t know what is.
I must confess, I have not actually run with an otter (sounds like fun, though, and I might win if we had a race). I haven’t exactly talked to one either (again, sounds like fun). But I did see one for the first time this week, I have done a run, I am about to give my first talk on depression, and I only have time to write one blog post, so I’ve mixed them all together.
At the start of August, I ran the York 10K with my friends Kate and Keith in memory of Dan Rhodes, my friend who took his own life this January after a long battle with mental illness. Big thanks to everyone who sponsored us – we raised £382.50 for Dan’s memorial fund at Jubilee Church Hull, which will be used to provide facilities and education for homeless and vulnerable people in Hull. Donations still very welcome!
Here’s photographic proof that I did it, finishing with a face as red as my T-shirt.
The run ended up being rather more challenging than expected, as I came down with a cold and spent the two nights before the big day coughing horribly (not that anyone ever coughs nicely). There was no way I was going to miss it, though, even if I had to walk all the way.
As it turned out, the hindrance of my lurgy made me do some unusually positive thinking. With each kilometre I ran, I congratulated myself on another km that I didn’t think I’d be able to do, until I found myself panting my way to the finish line, having run all the way.
From one challenge to another…
I’ve written a lot about my experiences of depression, and chatted to a lot of people about it. I’ve even done a couple of radio interviews, like this one on BBC Radio York last week (listen from 08:45 for about six minutes). However, public speaking is an exciting yet terrifying new venture, and that’s what I’ll be doing this Saturday. I’m joining the brilliant Jayne Hardy and Lotte Lane in London to talk about depression and self-care at the first BLURT Talks event, run by the Blurt Foundation. There are still some tickets left – come along and see me face my fears!
Every year, my dad and I go for a day’s walking somewhere. This year, we decided to spend the best part of a day at the RPSB’s Leighton Moss reserve in Lancashire, and a very wise decision that turned out to be.
It was one of those rare, magical days when we happened to be in the right places at the right times.
I’d heard that great white egrets had been seen at Leighton Moss and – being a keen birder and never having seen one before – was keen to clap my eyes on one.
The staff told us where the egrets had most recently been seen. We walked into the hide and found a small, excited group of visitors who’d just spotted an otter!
After straining my eyes for a couple of minutes, I saw it too – first an arched back, breaking the surface of the water like a miniature whale, then a head popped up, then there was a flick of a pointed tail. For a good ten minutes, the cheeky beast played hide and seek with us, swimming rapidly back and forth, disappearing then reappearing. Having already seen my first living badger earlier this year, it seemed too good to be true that I’d just seen my first otter as well.
Our luck was also in with the egret. While we were sitting eating our sandwiches, my dad spotted a large white bird drifting over a distant reedbed in the distance, and within a few minutes we were watching this magnificent, pure white bird stretching its almost impossibly long neck out over a lagoon, looking for something to snap up in its big yellow bill.
And I did talk to the otter, if calling out “Ah, there you are!” in an excited voice counts…
This January, my friend Dan Rhodes took his own life, aged 39, after battling mental illness on and off for 15 years.
He was a lovely, genuine, funny, talented man and is much missed by his family and friends. His death shocked and saddened us all.
On 3 August, I’m running the York 10K with my friends Kate Wilkinson and Keith Bremner to raise money in Dan’s memory.
We want to remember him by raising as much money as we can for his memorial fund at his church, Jubilee Church Hull. The money will go towards the church’s work supporting people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness in Hull.
If you’d like to make a donation, you can do so on the church’s website here.
Your donation will help to empower vulnerable people and offer practical support. This year, the church is providing showers and laundry facilities and opening a recovery college, providing accessible educational opportunities.
Thank you very much,
Paul, Kate and Keith
P.S. Dan loved a good ‘dad joke’ – the sort of terrible pun that makes you cringe. Share your best ones with us!
I’ve learned a lot through my hideous experience of depression and my long, slow, bumpy recovery and, although I forget a lot of this new-found wisdom most of the time, I’m determined not to let it go to waste.
Putting this learning into action is my best chance of fending off any future attacks from my nemesis and staying well.
So, here are the most important things I’ve learned. They might seem obvious, but these are all things I couldn’t do when I started counselling in 2010.
I’m bound to have forgotten something vital, but, in line with point number 2, I won’t beat myself up about it.
1. Learn to accept ‘good enough’. You can’t do everything to the absolute best of your ability the whole time, Mr Perfectionist, and you can’t please everyone all the time. Most situations are not a case of all or nothing. Save your best for when you really need it. Imagine you’re a car – too many extra miles and you’ll find yourself in the garage.
2. Give yourself a break. Stop criticising yourself and putting yourself down. Stop setting yourself unnecessary targets and challenges. Work out what your strengths and qualities are, and remember them. Ask someone else if you don’t know what they are. I did. Write them down if that helps.
3. Don’t worry about what other people think. More often than not, you have no idea what people are actually thinking, and are probably jumping to the wrong conclusion, so you’ll end up taking everything personally. And don’t worry what people think of you. Define yourself on your own terms. Only you have the right to decide who you are and what you do with your life.
4. If something has happened to irritate, infuriate or upset you and it is festering in your mind, you either have to do something about it or accept it and let it go. Dwelling on it will do you nothing but harm. Nelson Mandela put it better than me:
Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.
5. Don’t think when tired. Nobody is at their best when they’re tired. Tiredness really does affect your state of mind. If I start thinking when I’m tired, I end up in imaginary arguments, over-thinking everything and feeding paranoia. Distract yourself with some music or whatever works for you.
6. Find time to do something you enjoy. Do it because you love it. Not everything you do has to achieve something, so stop the striving – enjoying something is a result in itself. Everyone needs to relax. Nobody is invincible.
7. Savour the moment. Recognise when you feel good. Notice when you are enjoying something. Write it down – maybe in a diary, like the one I started keeping during my depression and still write in. Take a photo. Remember it. It’s your evidence against the voice that says everything is miserable and hopeless.
8. Live in the present. Don’t let the past rule your life now, and don’t worry about the future so much that it spoils today. Take some advice from Oogway, the wise tortoise in Kung Fu Panda:
You are too concerned with what was and what will be. There is a saying: Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.
9. It’s not weak to ask for help. Talking to someone about how you’re feeling can change – or even save – your life. Don’t try and keep it in through some misguided sense that you are tough, strong and can handle anything and everything. That’s not tough or strong – it’s daft.
10. Don’t stop believing. When you’re in a dark place, believe the light will return. Keep hoping. Keep the faith. Believe things can improve and you can get better. You just don’t know what’s coming next, so don’t write off yourself or your future.
First posted by Time To Change.
It took me a while to tell all my friends about my depression. It wasn’t something I really wanted to talk about at first. It was only when I started to open up about it that I realised how much talking helped.
My friends just accepted it, and without making a big deal about it they let me know they were looking out for me. I began to find out about other people’s experiences, which helped too.
Here are six ways you can support a friend who’s going through depression, based on what I’ve valued most.
- Treat them as normal. Don’t be wary of them, don’t fuss over them, don’t pity them, don’t pussyfoot around them. Depression is an alienating experience, and a little normality in an alien world can be very welcome. Your friend is still the same person, so you should be the same with them.
- Keep inviting them to things. Don’t leave them out because you think they won’t feel up to it. They might not, and that’s fine, but I was always very grateful for friends who remembered me and tried to include me, no matter how many times I turned down their offers. Just remember to reply to your friend’s messages. I felt paranoid with my depression and would worry if someone didn’t reply. I just assumed they were annoyed with me. On the times I did say yes to an invitation, it was good to get out and have a much-needed laugh or a change of scene. And following on from that…
- Help your friend get out of the house. Daytime outings – even a simple walk – might be better than evenings. I struggled to sleep, so in the mornings I was like a zombie and by the evening I was shattered, so afternoons were the best time to get out. I was also low on confidence, and the idea of going out somewhere busy often felt overwhelming, so somewhere quiet in the open air suited me best.
- Ask them how they are, and listen. It can be a call, a text, a message on Facebook, whatever works best, but keep in touch. Don’t be scared to talk – it’s important. It doesn’t have to be a deep, soul-searching, psychologically probing conversation. On the whole, that would just be weird and hard work for both of you. Just a simple “How are you doing?” is just right.
- Don’t try to cure them. A bag of sweets, some daft jokes or a trip out somewhere is much better than a heavy-handed dose of amateur therapy, or badly judged motivational pep talks. Saying ‘Could be worse’, ‘Man up’ or ‘Snap out of it’ will do far more harm than good, so just don’t. Ever. If you’re not sure how you can help, just ask them.
- Be patient. Depression can be a stubborn companion and recovery can take many months. You might see no improvement for a long time. It affects people in lots of different ways – for example memory loss, so don’t hold it against them if they forget something.
This is a blog I’ve written for Mental Health Awareness Week at work. I was asked to describe depression.
I’ve written and talked a lot about depression since I first ‘went public’ three years ago. It’s an everyday subject for me now. Being open about it might seem to have given me a kind of superpower and turned me into Depression Boy – the plucky underdog who has fought to overcome an evil genius hell-bent on demolition.
That’s the comic-book version of fighting depression, but the reality is far less exciting. Battling depression has been a long, mundane, drawn-out process that has involved counselling, medication, education and the support, patience and kindness of family, friends, colleagues and strangers who I’ve got to know through social media, over months and years.
Depression is like a thick, energy-sapping fog that gets into your head and drains you of vitality. It’s not the sort of villain that you can shoot, kick or punch with a Batman-style ‘KERPOW!’
It operates by stealth, creeping about in the shadows and striking hardest when you’re on your own; when nobody else can see. The outside world sees you smiling and carrying on, but in your head, in your inner turmoil, you’re fighting a constant battle against an onslaught of ever-churning destructive thoughts and feelings.
This secretive stalking is what gives depression its power. It’s a bully in your brain, trapping you in your own private prison, relentlessly battering you with anger and self-doubt, crushing your confidence, eroding your self-esteem and erasing your memory. You feel paranoid, vague, weak and ashamed. Even now that I have been well for a while, there are dips and those feelings return – for briefer spells, thankfully.
The feelings of weakness and shame stop us talking about depression, which makes it hard for people to understand. In turn, this can create ignorance, misunderstanding and stigma, which only makes matters worse for people living with the illness.
But here’s the good news. You can get through depression and rediscover what life was like before it came along, using what you’ve learned along the way to create a new, wiser version of yourself, better equipped to cope with any future attacks.
The only superpowers you need are hope and, if you feel up to it, openness. Talk to someone about it. Bring it out of the dark, and like me, you will discover there are countless other people who have been through it and are still going through it – people who can help and empathise.
The more of us who expose this cruel enemy for what it is, the weaker its powers over us will become.
One crucial thing I learned in my counselling for depression was that it’s important to find time to do something you enjoy. One of the things I enjoy most is birdwatching.
Fitting my hobby around work and family life isn’t easy, but I’ve found ways of managing it. Sometimes I go out for a spot of lunchtime birding and take pleasure from the birds I can see in the park next to where I work, or just up the road at Rawcliffe Meadows.
Occasionally, my wife and I take our children to a family-friendly nature reserve, like Fairburn Ings, Skipwith Common or Askham Bog. I don’t get to do much real birding on those occasions – the birds can usually hear my son’s voice from a mile away and go into hiding – but it’s still nice to get out and enjoy the odd glimpse of a feathered friend.
But what really excites me – and I do get a boyish sense of restless excitement about this – is planning a BIRDING MISSION, when I take a day’s leave from work and head off somewhere to seek out birds I haven’t seen before, or at least haven’t seen for a long time.
My last birding mission was in October, when I made the epic journey (well, less than two hours but it seems to take forever) to Spurn Point, where Yorkshire’s east coast comes to a sandy end, jutting out into the gaping mouth of the River Humber.
My previous trip to Spurn, several years ago, had been a birding bonanza, and I had high hopes. In the build-up, I pretty much stalked Spurn Bird Observatory on Twitter to keep track of the latest sightings. I studied a map of the area to get familiar with place names and local landmarks. There had been a Firecrest in the churchyard; Jack Snipe in the canal zone; Little Gulls near the pub; and all kinds of rarities cropping up pretty much all over the place.
I arrived in Kilnsea, the small village nearest the point, some time around ten, and Spurn seemed to be alive with birds. A little egret rose up from the water’s edge, gulls were flying over, a garden over the road was under siege from various small birds, and I couldn’t wait to get out there and explore. Two helpful and highly excitable birders who’d been there since the crack of dawn had seen all sorts, and pointed out a great skua in the distance.
From there, though, things didn’t quite go to plan. The Firecrest had disappeared from the churchyard. The Jack Snipe had gone. A Great Grey Shrike had turned up in a hedge, but by the time I got to the scene a crow had scared it off. I found an exotic-looking bunting that turned out to be a common female Reed Bunting.
Then I heard about an obscure Pallas’s Leaf Warbler that had been seen right at the end of the point. I found out what they looked like – cute, tiny and green, with a stripy head – and decided I’d try and track it down. Then I found the road to the end, three miles away, had been washed away by a recent storm.
I marched on, but a steady stream of mournful-looking birders began coming past me in the opposite direction.
“No sign of it,” they said.
Out of a stubborn desire to reach the tip, I kept going, but as the weather got more and more blustery, I began to regret the decision. Not only had the warbler made itself scarce, it had taken all the other birds with it – or maybe the wind had done that. It had carried me to the end of the point, but it was not so helpful on the way back. It battered me so hard I could hardly walk at times, especially when I pulled a muscle in my right leg with the effort of it all.
I’d seen plenty of birds but nothing new. A bit disappointing, given the promise the day had held, but with some highlights, not least the mass arrival of migrant Redwings, Fieldfares and Goldcrests.
Rather comically, when I checked Twitter the following morning, the Great Grey Shrike had popped up again, joined by a friend.
They might wear me out sometimes, and they might seem to hide deliberately just to taunt me, but I reckon birds are good for me. And the excitement of my birding missions is good for me. That’s why I’m planning another one in May…