Riding the recovery rollercoasterPosted: April 20, 2012
No offence to Ronan Keating, but I don’t usually turn to his songs for lessons about life. However, he had a point when he said ‘Life is a rollercoaster, just gotta ride it’, and, as I’m discovering, that same lesson applies to depression.
It turns out that recovering from depression is, in some ways, like riding the Big Dipper, a famous rollercoaster in Blackpool. It isn’t a smooth ride – it has big ups and big downs, and a few dizzying bends thrown in – and those big dips make your stomach and head feel pretty weird. The differences between the Big Dipper and the Big Depression are:
- You don’t know when the latter will stop and let you get off, or even where it’s going.
- You didn’t choose to get on it.
- Many people enjoy the thrill of a rollercoaster, but nobody enjoys depression.
Life may be a rollercoaster, but sometimes, given the option of just riding it or not, I’m sure I’m not alone in sometimes wishing I could step off for a while and have a breather. Anyway, I’ve always been a bit timid when it comes to rollercoasters. It’s something to do with being really high up and then plummeting down at great speed – much like my own experience of trying to recover from depression.
Once I’d had my first round of counselling and was feeling better, I assumed that meant I was on the mend and I was full of optimism. I felt so good this time last year that I started to reduce the dose of my antidepressants, but my moods began to darken again and so the dose went back up. I tried again a couple of months later, and this time it went well. Hurrah, an improvement! I’m getting better. Yay! So down goes the dose again, but not for long, because along comes a prolonged period of stress, and the dose goes back up again. Up and down goes my mood, down and up goes my medication. Then came a difficult situation and a big drop – time off work, increased medication and a second round of counselling.
My problem was that, while my first round of counselling had sorted out a lot of problems, such as boosting my self-esteem, realising that I wasn’t a failure and starting to look forward to things again, there were still some lingering issues that my evil alter-ego, Paul Brookes, had kept behind in his secret vault. He knew I still worried what people thought about me and he knew I still felt the need to excel at everything, as if trying to prove something. He knew that I didn’t feel good enough. He unleashed these missiles of misery with great glee last autumn.
This experience is summed up in a line from Learn My Lesson, a bouncy tune from Rizzle Kicks’ debut album, Stereotypical:
The art of learning lessons is a lesson that I’ve never learned.
I knew the same things that Brookes knew, but I hadn’t learned from them and hadn’t tackled them adequately. With the benefit of hindsight, a second round of counselling, some reading and support from friends, I’m a little wiser and am trying to learn my lesson so that I don’t have to go through it all again.
Reassuringly, the more I read and learn about depression, the more I realise that this rollercoaster recovery ride is completely normal. There will be good days and bad days. I can feel capable of anything one day and nothing the next. On a good day I can be full of fun, ready to take on the world. On a bad day, I feel like a liability, a burden, and my dark moods overwhelm me – like a grenade packed with fury and bitterness that could blow up at any moment.
Two things I’ve read recently have been particularly helpful to me in realising that a bad day doesn’t mean a catastrophic failure and a dramatic slide back into the great pit of doom:
It is the nature of depression itself that your progress will inevitably be both slow and erratic. (Sarah Medina 2002, Light: a way through depression, Lion Publishing)
Recovery isn’t, unless you are very lucky, a smooth path upward. If you try to hurry yourself to full recovery, the process can be very turbulent indeed and take an age. If you do everything right, there are still usually a lot of ups and downs along the way… (Dr Tim Cantopher 2003, Depressive illness: The curse of the strong, Sheldon Press)
So let’s not kick ourselves when we’re down. The recovery rollercoaster will rise again soon, and one day, the ride will stop and we will be able to get off, breathe a sigh of relief and go for an ice cream or a doughnut.
I wrote this blog for the Blurt Foundation, who provide support for people with depression.