Mood over matter: when depression strikes

One Monday, nearly two years ago, depression leapt out from the shadows and pounced on me.

In that one day, it felt like I’d plummeted down a deep and gloomy pothole. It was like my stomach had fallen out; like someone had switched off a light in my head; like a part of me had died; like I’d plunged from hero to zero.

Looking back, there were plenty of clues that this was likely to happen – and even after it had, I think I still managed to fool myself for a while that I hadn’t noticed. What happened after that day is another story. What I’ve been thinking about all this week is how I ended up in that position, and what it felt like.

It had been a stressful summer and autumn, both at work and at home. As I wrote in my first blog on depression – Stress, depression and Star Wars – I’d been putting too much pressure on myself. I wanted to be the perfect dad, despite the fact that I was tired from being woken up night after night. I wanted to excel at work, despite the fact I’d taken on too much and expected myself to achieve unrealistic deadlines. And I wanted to shine in my return to the stage in my village pantomime. Oh yes I did.

Trying to be a perfect dad is not a sensible aim. Nobody is perfect. Everybody gets grouchy when tired. You can only do your best. But because I sometimes snapped at my children, I felt I’d failed.

That same fear of failure seemed to drive me to achieve some great things at work – and I did achieve them, but at the cost of my health. I’d spent about a fortnight in my own little bubble, my mind locked onto the tasks in hand. After setting myself a particularly ludicrous deadline for a difficult piece of editing work, I didn’t get time to savour my accomplishments. The moment I’d finished, I realised I was meant to be going into a meeting. I stood up quickly, and practically fell over. My head started spinning, I felt woozy and sick, and my colleagues had to drive me home. Before I’d had chance to recover from that, I caught an infection that knocked me out for more than a week. A warning sign that I was burning out? Yes. Did I heed it? Not really.

Another warning sign was that I’d stopped looking forward to anything, no matter how much fun it might be. Everything had become something to dread; something to worry about. I knew that wasn’t right, but what I didn’t know was that it meant depression was creeping up on me.

Then there was the pantomime. It was the ninth panto I’d done for my group, the Ebor Players, but I’d missed the last two shows to adapt to family life – one of the few sensible things I’ve ever done to try and look after myself. The standard of the production had continued to improve while I’d been away, and so had the choreography. My attempts at dancing seemed particularly feeble.

Now, I love doing the panto, and I love the group. They’re a brilliant, lovely bunch of people – not the sort of folk who’d put me under the spotlight and put pressure on me. No, I did that for myself. This wasn’t just a return to acting, singing and performing in front of an audience, which was, and is, scary enough. It was, in my mind, the equivalent of Elvis Presley’s 1968 Comeback Special – the TV show, aired to millions, that marked his triumphant return to live performance after years of movie-making.Was he nervous? Definitely. Could he still make great music? Of course. Did his fans still love him? Absolutely.

Clearly my own talents are nothing like those of the legendary King of Rock ‘n’ roll, and I couldn’t claim to have ‘fans’, but my expectations were – rather preposterously – just as high as Elvis’s. This return meant a lot to me, and I heaped the pressure on myself to burst back onto the amateur dramatics scene in a blaze of glory.

I remember one rehearsal where I looked out and realised other members of the cast were watching what I was doing. Not only that, but what I was doing at that moment was not perfect. I was struggling with my dance steps. It dawned on me, as I sat quietly and despondently afterwards, how far my confidence had slipped. And that decline in my already fragile confidence has been a central, ongoing theme of my depression – one which loudly made itself known again this autumn to trigger another bout.

Any criticism, however minor, and whether levelled at me or generally at us as a group, was a crushing personal blow. And there you have another factor of depression – its ability to twist everything so that it is a personal attack on your character.

I was nervous to the point of gibbering, every single night. Despite all this – or possibly because of it – I was fired up for that panto, and it was a huge success for the Ebor Players, and for me personally. It was a fantastic week. We all had a great laugh, and there was a real buzz about the show.

After the almost surreal high of panto week came the reality of returning to work. When you’ve been enjoying the laughter and applause of an audience night after night, sitting at a desk is a bit of a comedown at the best of times. Paul Brookes, as I call my miserable alter-ego, must have known this. He was there, waiting.

Suddenly, I was nobody. I wasn’t important. Reality was a drag, and my moods were dreadful. I would drive to work thinking the foulest, darkest thoughts, picking imaginary fights with people over non-existent criticism. I was permanently tense and felt angry for at least some of every day.

I plodded on, with my minor ailments stacking up and my persistent headaches gradually worsening, until I knew I had to do something about it. I went to see the doctor and told him I was feeling frazzled. About three months after the day Brookes beat my door down and made himself cosy in my mind’s living room, the feelings I was having, the black moods that had been plaguing me, had a name. Depression.

This could be a pretty desolate way to end a blog, but it isn’t. Because facing up to my illness was the first step to understanding it and tackling it. Two years on, I’m still wrestling with Brookes, but I know what he’s up to and I know what I need to do about it. I can talk about it quite openly. Well, write about it anyway. My big challenge now is to put my learning into practice – because depression is all about mood over matter, rather than mind over matter.

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16 Comments on “Mood over matter: when depression strikes”

  1. I know where you’re coming from. The most poignant parts for me are about putting pressure on yourself. Trying to be the perfect dad, especially. That did for me several years ago.

    Embracing your weaknesses and strengths, finding that ability to shrug and say to yourself, I can do what I can do, nothing more, is a great way to take that pressure off of yourself. Following the old cliche of taking it one step at a time, one day at a time is a remarkably good way forward. It will help to make you more laid back about yourself, life and what it brings.

    We have to live within our limitations, accept them and maybe try to push them slightly. But we shouldn’t try to live beyond them and feel we have to be something or somebody that we’re not.

    You’re you, I’m me. We live, we learn and we can grow. Little by little.

    Good luck and keep up the good work. Little by little.

    Take care,

    Craig

  2. Jen Jones says:

    PB – I remember the first panto I saw – 2006, and though it will be no consolation to you and Brookes, I remember 2009 – those of us on the outside couldn’t tell the difference….. Whilst it more than sucks that you are battling this – it is more than amazing that you can articulate your experiences with such depth and feeling that you encourage others to do the same. And I for one thank you for being so brave.

  3. Tom Phillips says:

    I found it so helpful to write about my run in with depression, and regretted not doing it sooner once I’d done it – some way back in http://tomsprints.wordpress.com. The piece called “Time I Levelled With You”.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts etc. The way through is different for us all, but the journey is worth it!

    Tom

  4. Stephen Hunt says:

    There are many things I find about your recent blogs that are striking to me – one of them is how much common experience you are finding with others. This is a problem that is so widespread, affects so many people, and yet there is this lingering stigma attached to it. Something that almost has a sense of shame around it you tell people that’s why you can’t come to work or join in a social get-together. A broken leg? Sympathy galore. A broken mind? Harder to admit, and less sympathy, when in fact there should be more. And more help.

    Credit to you for being so honest, and so open. And there’s something wonderful about the way your bravery in doing so has caught the attention of so many – one can only hope that it has brought you the extra support and strength you need.

    On a side note to all that, I’ve found that there are a few friends of mine fighting through depression (some now regular readers of your blog, by the way!) and as an outsider to their fight, but who wants to help them through it, I sometimes find it difficult to know the best way to offer help. Perhaps those who read the blog might have some insights, some helpful websites to point to for friends and family of those who are suffering from depression to gather information from to best help those who are important to them.

    • paulbrook76 says:

      Thanks Stephen.
      There are some good books and websites that can help. I will attempt to pull together a list at some point. There are loads of great people and organisations on Twitter too.
      Cheers
      Paul

    • HI Stephen

      You ask about insights, websites etc. MIND are brilliant, they have a lot of support on line for sufferers and people who are worried about friends who are suffering from depression. Also, have you heard of the Black Dog series? They are a series of books written by Matthew Johnstone, who suffers periodically from depression. They are brilliant, comical, easy to read and say so much more than any text books I have trawled through in my training as a counsellor. They would speak to anyone of any age and I often use them with children to help them understand how parents might feel when they have a depressive illness. You can find them on Amazon, there’s: Living With a Black Dog, his name is depression and Living With a Black Dog (for the people who care and love for someone who suffers with depression). That book probably would be enough to help you support those fighting the fight. Well worth a look and full of easy tips.

  5. …. What I love about your blog:

    Your honesty.

    The fact Brookes is squirming. For once, he’s outta the shadows and the spotlight of truth is shinning all over him! How ugly, small and insignificant he truly is! Muwahahaaa!

    So many things you say resonate with people who also have an dastardly alter-ego. Brookes and his friends feed on making people feel alone and isolated, responsible for these awful feelings. What blogs like this prove is that (in actual fact) they are feelings and perhaps chemical brain reactions which many people feel. We are not failures, stupid, etc, etc. We sometimes suffer from a flare-up of an.illness and, just like a physical illness, we are not responsible!

    I learn so much from you and other’s comments. As a counsellor of young troubled people, who often suffer from depression, I’m always willing to gather more information!

    Now, as a mum of two wonderful teenage girls, a word to the wise about perfection….. I used to seriously beat myself up when my girls were small and after the birth of my first, that’s when my depression made it’s first entrance, skulking in through the sleepless nights and berating me because I was not completely and immediately overcome with love for this little person. It forgot to tell me that perhaps that would be the case, after a very traumatic birth and hormonal changes…. But, as Winnicott says, a parent does not need to be perfect, it is better that they are ‘good enough’. If we are ‘perfect’, our children will never see us coping with difficult emotions. They will think we are perfect and the pressure will be on for them to also be perfect. They will never have the opportunity to learn how to deal with difficult feelings. If we are true to ourselves and cock up occasionally, they will learn we are not perfect, therefore they don’t need to be perfect and when a parent lets them down (as any parent does who is not perfect), they will develop coping strategies to deal with their difficult emotions, which will help them throughout their life. So, please as a parent, do not berate yourself for the few times you are not perfect with them. As long as they are safe, well, and (most importantly), you say sorry when you do not behave perfectly, they will grow and develop into more rounded people. They will irritate you, they will test you to the limit, oh, just wait for the teenage years… they will sometimes expect far more than you can deliver, even when you feel on top of the world. But love them uncondtionally, that’s the best thing anyone can do.

    Have you heard for the Black Dog series? They are a series of books written by Matthew Johnstone, who suffers periodically from depression. They are brilliant, comical, easy to read and say so much more than any text books I have trawled through. They would speak to anyone of any age and I often use them with children to help them understand how parents might feel when they have a depressive illness. You can find them on Amazon, there’s: Living With a Black Dog, his name is depression and Living With a Black Dog (for the people who care and love for someone who suffers with depression). Well worth a look and full of easy tips to help when Brookes is in danger of getting the upper hand.

    Finally, a little warning…. don’t try and be a perfectionist about living with and conquering depression! It’s taken me years to finally begin to work out the best way is just to muddle through, as people have wisely said on here… one day at a time… one step in front of the other. Sometimes Brookes will be stronger, sometimes you will be. You don’t have to write perfect blogs, reply to every comment (and feel bad if you don’t….). You just have to be you. That’s enough.

  6. taramo says:

    So pleased more people are speaking up about depression, myself included. You can read about my own experiences here.

    http://www.greatbritishlife.co.uk/community/blogs/detail/depression–dont-make-me-laugh/id/5682/

  7. I found this quote very fitting “Don’t fear failure so much that you refuse to try new things. The saddest summary of a life contains three descriptions: could have, might have, and should have.” — Louis E. Boone

  8. […] 2009, before stress and depression entered my life, I trained well and enjoyed the event. I surprised myself by finishing in under an […]

  9. […] 2009, before stress and depression entered my life, I trained well and enjoyed the event. I surprised myself by finishing in under an […]


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