Have you ever stopped and wondered if a tortoise is speaking directly to you?
I was watching Kung Fu Panda with my wife and children at the weekend. I hadn’t planned to – there was shopping to do, and the sun was shining outside – but I was enjoying it and surrendered.
A line spoken by a wise old tortoise made me sit up and pay attention.
“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.”
The tortoise’s words might as well have been parcelled up in a brightly coloured package addressed to me and delivered by the tortoise himself.
“He’s right!” I thought. I spend so much time getting stressed about things that have happened or making plans for the future that I don’t stop to savour what’s happening in the here and now.
Some other wise words – this time from John Lennon – have also sprung out at me recently:
“Life is just what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”
He’s right too.
Sometimes life isn’t about doing great things, or making bold plans. It’s about doing things with no obvious purpose – not things you need to do, or that will achieve something.
I’m used to aiming high and aspiring to achieve lofty ambitions. I’ve forgotten how to relax and to do things simply because I enjoy doing them. My mind is often somewhere else.
I’ve always thought about life in terms of what I will – or should be – when I grow up; about how I can inspire my children and be a role model to them.
I spend a lot of time setting myself challenges, tackling them and trying to prove myself, but actually my greatest challenge is to take off the self-imposed pressure, get off the achievement treadmill and do more things purely for pleasure.
For example, I enjoy doing jigsaws, but I never do them, because there’s no real point. I don’t get anywhere in life by doing a jigsaw.
But things like jigsaws do have a point. Doing something you enjoy is vital for your mental wellbeing.
I devote so much thought and time to having a healthy, balanced diet and enough exercise, yet I don’t give my body and brain enough of what they need most – a break; some trivial fun.
Sometimes life is about ignoring the shopping that needs doing, turning a blind eye to the sunny day outside (even though you feel you ought to take advantage of the good weather), and just sitting inside watching Kung Fu Panda together.
No striving. No achieving. No doing what you feel you ought to be doing. Just being.
Have you ever felt like screaming and smashing something – not just once, but constantly? Ever woken up with a tense feeling in your stomach that won’t go away?
Well, in the space of one or two days, that’s how I felt when I reduced my dose of Citalopram – the antidepressant that has been my constant companion in varying doses for three years – from 20mg to 10mg.
This was meant to be the final push to glorious recovery from depression. It was supposed to be the dawning of a new era – my arrival in the Promised Land. While I don’t have a problem with taking the pills, I’d much prefer it if I didn’t have to.
I’d been well, or ‘stable’ if you like, for nine months when I went to see my doctor at the end of February. Last July, reducing my dose from 30mg to 20mg made no difference and this gave me great cause for optimism.
I’ve known from the moment I was prescribed antidepressants that coming off them is something you have to do gradually. I hadn’t appreciated quite how gradually. It’s astonishing how much difference 10mg of medication can make – or perhaps more precisely, it’s astonishing the effect of reducing your medication by 10mg can have.
Just one day after I’d lowered my dose, something happened that annoyed and upset me. I won’t go into that here. In the grand scheme of things, it was quite trivial. In the context of someone on the rollercoaster recovery from depression reducing his medication, it was massive.
I couldn’t break the black mood that descended. I didn’t even want to think anything positive. I was overcome with fury – possessed by it. My demonic old nemesis, Paul Brookes (a.k.a. Depression), had scuttled out from under his rock and was knocking on my door. In fact, he was threatening to beat it down.
I lived in this state of continuous tension, anger, skull-crushing headaches and distraction for ten days, before conceding that I would have to speak to my doctor again and increase the dose. I knew I was in trouble when I started to lose my memory again. During those nine months of feeling well, it had begun to return, and my thinking was much sharper.
Strangely, going back up to 20mg again has been a relief. It hasn’t felt like defeat or failure, and that’s how I know that this glitch is nothing more diabolical. I haven’t gone back to that kind of destructive thinking.
Although the experience has knocked my confidence and thrown me off course, depression has not returned, but the withdrawal felt like it had, with a vengeance. Later this spring, I’ll be going back to my doctor and we’ll try an even more gradual reduction.
It’s a bit like learning to ride a bike. You first have to get used to keeping your balance with the stabilisers on, then you might feel ready to try riding your bike without them. Some people master cycling straight away. Others take their time. They might sway all over the place, need extra help and support, or even fall off.
Ultimately, though, the bike’s still there, and most of us learn how to ride it.
When my wife and I took our two children for a winter walk recently, I fully expected them to moan that it was boring; that they were cold; that they were hungry.
Surprisingly, none of that happened. In fact, they had a great time, exploring paths and enjoying the sights and sounds of our local countryside. It reminded me that, for small children, every outing, every place or activity brings new and potentially exciting and fascinating experiences.
The most memorable moment was then they were standing on a bridge over a road, waiting for cars to come under it. One driver looked up, saw their excited faces and honked his horn. It was quite possibly the most thrilling thing that had ever happened to them.
In contrast, for someone with depression, every day, every outing, every place or activity is a source of overwhelming worry, fear, stress, dread, anxiety and tiredness.
Thankfully, I am now experiencing the world in a more childlike way. It is like my senses are reawakening after being numbed and lost in freezing fog for three years.
Depression had drained the colour from my life, deadening my memory, blackening my moods and draining my energy and enthusiasm. I go out now and look up at the trees and sky, rather than staring blankly ahead or at the floor. Like my children, I’m enjoying exploring the world around me and taking in new experiences.
I’m also rediscovering pleasures that had become lost and forgotten – music, for example. It’s not that I never listened to music during my depression, but some of the music I enjoyed most a few years ago somehow lost its appeal in those dark times.
I’d skip half the tracks on CDs or on my iPod because I just couldn’t be bothered to listen to them. I’m now getting a lot of pleasure from digging out music that I haven’t listened to for ages, like my collection of 50s American rock ’n’ roll, which has been sadly neglected for a long time but which is now a fresh delight.
One musical moment in particular filled me with a feeling I haven’t had for a long time.
Before I got my first CD player in the mid-90s – one of those personal CD players that nobody has any more – I’d built up a sizeable collection of cassettes, including a small number of Elvis Presley tapes. There was a poor-quality live recording, a greatest hits compilation and a couple of movie soundtracks.
The ability to play CDs opened up a whole new world of possibilities. I bought a CD called Elvis 56 with my birthday money. This collection of songs recorded in 1956 came with a nice booklet of photographs of Elvis looking cool and moody, and held great promise. I put the disk in my CD player and took it to bed with me that night.
What I heard made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It made me shiver. It was magic. I was hooked. The impact of those songs – Anyway You Want Me; I Was The One; I Want You, I Need You, I Love You; Anyplace is Paradise – stayed with me. I needed more Elvis CDs, and it didn’t stop there. I watched the movies, bought the box sets, read the books, even began impersonating Elvis at karaoke.
I put a CD of Elvis’s 1956 recordings in my car last week and there was that feeling again – a feeling that makes you just sit back, take a deep breath and go ‘wow’.
So, in life beyond depression, feelings like joy, excitement and anticipation can return, however long and however deep they’ve been buried. Perhaps my prolonged hibernation is over at last.
First published by Mind.
After three years in the mire of depression, optimism is a new idea to me. It is both exciting and a new thing to worry about.
Can I remain optimistic and positive? Can I really leave depression behind? When I wobble can I keep my balance? Can I really come off my antidepressants this year or will it be another anticlimactic mission?
The answer to these questions can be found in an unlikely trio of places – a children’s Christmas film, a Dr Seuss book and in Alice in Wonderland. This answer is just one word long and is my motto for 2013:
One simple, memorable word to focus on. Believe good things are possible. Believe in the seemingly impossible. And, hardest but potentially most rewarding of all, believe in myself – believe in what I am capable of, what I can do, and believe that I can be well and happy.
So what’s all this about Dr Seuss, Alice in Wonderland and Christmas films, then?
Let’s start with Dr Seuss, and one of his many great books, Oh the Places You’ll Go. Reading this for the first time to my children a couple of weeks ago, I was convinced some of it was about recovering from depression. I particularly like these three passages:
And when you’re in a Slump,
you’re not in for much fun.
is not easily done.
But on you will go
though the weather be foul
On you will go
though your enemies prowl
On you will go
though the Hakken-Kraks howl
Onward up many
a frightening creek,
though your arms may get sore
and your sneakers may leak.
And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed! (98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)
In Tim Burton’s film of Alice in Wonderland, which I watched recently (not with my children, who would have been well and truly freaked out by it), Alice also faces danger and has to fight a giant monster called the Jabberwocky – another thing that sounds like depression to me. She explains something that she learned from her inspirational father:
I try to believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Count them, Alice. One, there are drinks that make you shrink. Two, there are foods that make you grow. Three, animals can talk. Four, cats can disappear. Five, there is a place called Underland. Six, I can slay the Jabberwocky.
I love this idea of believing in things that don’t seem possible but are. In the darkest moments of my depression I felt useless to everyone and thought I would never get better or look forward to anything. It seemed impossible to overcome it, yet that’s what I am doing now.
The children’s Christmas film I mentioned is the lovely, magical Polar Express, in which a boy who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus boards a train to the North Pole and meets the big man himself. When he returns home convinced forever, the conductor stamps his ticket with the word ‘BELIEVE’ and tells him:
The thing about trains… it doesn’t matter where they’re going. What matters is deciding to get on.
So I am ready to get on the train and to believe. It is a leap of faith. I haven’t been ready to take that leap until now, but here we go. Depression, you have had your fun. Now pack your bags, go away and never come back. I am changing the locks.
If you are going through what I have been through with this soul-destroying illness, never give up hoping. Keep dreaming. Keep looking for light in the darkness. Believe that you can and will get better.
And now for something completely different – a comedy sketch about a man who goes to work dressed as characters from the Famous Five.
About five years ago, before depression waded into my life, I wrote a number of comedy sketches, as did my brother, Neil, and our friend, Paul. We wanted to create our own sketch show and it was going quite well until we realised it needed someone to fund it and make it – then it fizzled out swiftly and rather limply.
My sketches tended to be very silly and often surreal, inspired by Monty Python’s Flying Circus, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, and Little Britain. I found some of them recently and thought I’d share one of them with you. You know, for a laugh.
This sketch begins in a news room with anchor man Maxi Dandy, whose nightly show is called ‘Good Evening with Maxi Dandy’. Take it away, Maxi.
Maxi Dandy: Good evening. In tonight’s programme, we visit Dorset, where the actions of a local office worker have led to heated discussion about diversity and employee rights. Julian Blyton has been going to work dressed as a different member of the Famous Five each day of the week. Ivor Johnson reports.
Cut to Ivor Johnson, who is standing in a bland office setting, wearing a leather jacket, shirt and tie, and holding a hand-held microphone.
Ivor: Meet forty-nine-year-old Julian Blyton. He is just like any other office worker, except for one striking difference. Every day of the working week, he dresses up as a different character from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books.
The camera draws back to reveal Julian Blyton sitting opposite Ivor on the corner of a desk, dressed as nine-year-old Anne from the Famous Five.
Ivor: Julian, tell me how this began.
Julian (very deadpan, without a trace of humour): Well I suppose I have always been a Famous Five enthusiast. It may be down to my having the same surname as the author and also the same Christian name as the eldest character, Julian. Which is quite a coincidence.
Ivor: And have you always dressed in this way… as one of the Famous Five?
Julian: I tried it at school once, but the headmaster did not like it. He did not show much concern when I went into school as Julian, but took exception when I attended assembly as Timothy the Dog. He sent me home and told me to wear the proper school uniform. I am fortunate that my current employer is more considerate of my needs. He really is a brick.
Cut to Brian, Julian’s boss.
Brian: Yes, I admit it is a curious lifestyle but as long as Julian does his job well, I am happy for him to dress how he sees fit. To be fair, I do ask him to do office-based tasks on the days he wishes to dress as Timothy, as I feel our clients might not quite understand.
Ivor: I spoke to some of Julian’s colleagues to see what they really thought of his behaviour.
Cut to a series of people talking directly to camera.
Woman in her 40s: It’s quite a laugh really. I mean, he isn’t doing nobody no harm at the end of the day. I prefer him as Dick myself. He tends to be more humorous on Dick days.
Irate 35-year-old man: The whole thing is a bloody farce! This guy turns up dressed as a nine-year-old girl or whatever and we’re meant to take him seriously and let him get on with it. Last week, right, he went missing for THREE HOURS and when he came back he said he’d found a secret passageway behind the photocopier and had been kidnapped by bloody smugglers!
Young woman: Well, live and let live, you know, but it is a bit confusing. Like, one day a week he comes in as George, right. I mean, George is a girl who wants to be a boy, so we’ve got this bloke, who’s a bloke, pretending to be a girl, who wants to be a boy. That is a bit confusing, for me.
Cleaner: I wish he wouldn’t do it myself. When he comes in here dressed as a flipping dog, you should see all the mess. You know, we had to have doggy bins installed, but sometimes he forgets his pooper scooper. It’s not right, is it?
Older man: On the days he’s Timothy, we have to make sure all the doors are closed, or else he goes off looking for rabbits to chase. It’s a bit much, really.
Cut to Ivor and Julian.
Ivor: So what is a typical day like for Julian?
Julian: Well obviously it depends which of the characters I am, but I like to start the day with a walk in the country and a bathe in the stream. Then I come to work, but lunch is the most important time of the day. Aunt Fanny does give me a wizard luncheon. There are always ripe, juicy tomatoes, a big, fresh ham from the farmer’s wife, lashings of ginger beer and a couple of her lovely sticky buns. Today, because I am Anne, I will spend much of the day tidying my desk, cooking, cleaning and washing, because that is what young girls should do.
Ivor: Don’t you find office life rather boring, you know, being a member of the Famous Five? Shouldn’t you be out having adventures?
Julian: My life is terribly exciting. You never know what might happen. Last night, I was on my way to the toilet when a ghost train came clanking by, which was most peculiar.
Ivor: A ghost train?
Julian: A ghost train, that is correct. It had two lights and it went very fast and made a clicking noise, and I thought “Ooooooh, how mysterious, a ghost train here in our office. Why, there are not usually trains here. What can be happening?” Anyway, it turned out to be the cleaning lady with her trolley, and I had to admit I had been the most awful fathead.
Ivor: I see. So what happens when you leave the office? Do you change back into plain old Julian Blyton?
Cut to Julian leaving the office and cycling home along country lanes, drinking ginger beer and shouting “Hallo!” to traditional English characters – the village bobby, postman, butcher, etc. He goes up a garden path to a quaint little cottage. A portly, ruddy-faced woman (Aunt Fanny) opens the door and moments later, the other characters from the Famous Five come charging out and run to the sea shore, where they climb into a pale blue wooden rowing boat. Julian runs with them, after flinging his bike into a bush.
Aunt Fanny (calling after them): Anne! Anne! Don’t forget you have a meeting with the new admin assistant tomorrow morning at half past nine! Oh, and I’ve put your Dick clothes out on the airer.
Julian: Oh thank you, Aunt Fanny. That’s jolly decent of you.
Cut to Ivor Johnson, who is looking behind the photocopier in Julian’s office.
Ivor: Golly – he’s right! (He disappears behind the photocopier).
If you enjoyed this sketch, let me know – there are plenty more where this came from.
If you didn’t, be kind
As 2012 draws to a close I feel I have woken up from depression at last.
It took its time, but the sun – which had vanished behind dense, black fog at the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012 – has finally come out. The fog of desolation has lifted, the lights have come back on and the forecast is good for 2013 (see photos below).
It’s only now I’ve emerged from my zombie-like state that I realise how bad it was at times. During my three-year sleepwalk, I didn’t know what it felt like to enjoy anything, to look forward to anything, to relax or to have energy, to feel positive or optimistic.
My mood would turn so black that I would feel the rage boiling inside my head and I would just want to hit something. Once, I literally did bang my head against a wall. I learned a lesson from the ensuing headache – don’t do that again. Or I would feel so despondent, grey and lifeless every morning that I would sit wondering how I could get through the day, and would think how much easier it would be if the world would stop spinning and let me get off.
But thanks to counselling, a daily diary of positive things, the love, support and encouragement of my wife, family, friends and strangers on Twitter and who comment on this blog, greater self-awareness and a clearer perspective on life, and not least the passing of time, I am ready for the new year.
George Harrison’s lyrics for one of my favourite Beatles songs – Here Comes The Sun – sum up my past year very well, particularly in this verse:
Little darling, I feel that ice is slowly melting
Little darling, it seems like years since it’s been clear
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It’s all right
At the start of 2012, I wrote a blog post saying I would not set any targets or make new year’s resolutions. I managed this with one exception. I had the chance to send a children’s story to a literary agent, and decided I wanted to write it before I started pantomime rehearsals in September.
By carefully managing my time and not worrying excessively about it, I did it. Although the story ultimately came to nothing (at least, not on this occasion), I had achieved something to be proud of.
My philosophy is the same for this year – no undue pressure, no unnecessary deadlines or targets. There are things I want to do and things I will do, including the York 10K run in the summer. Running is something I started doing before depression struck but have struggled to keep up while I’ve been ill. Feeling well enough to start again has been one of my most significant and glorious victories over the wretched, stubborn, spiteful illness that has brought me down.
As a final kick to depression’s vile posterior, I am going to use this run to raise money for a great cause that has given me invaluable support on the rocky road through dark times – the Blurt Foundation.
Perhaps by then I will have been able to stop taking Citalopram, the antidepressant that has been my constant companion since the doctor diagnosed depression in early 2010. I am looking forward to writing a blog about that moment.
It felt like I would never get to this point, but I have.
To anyone else who’s going through what I’ve been through, all I can say is never give up hoping that you will get better, however long it takes. Think of depression as a big, smug face, and do everything you can to wipe the smile off it.
Happy new year, folks.