Riding the recovery rollercoaster

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.

28 Comments on “Riding the recovery rollercoaster”

  1. Kompani101 says:

    An excellent piece. I just strap myself in and ride the ‘black dog’. Sometimes it’s a couple of days, last year it was 6 months and this for the past ten plus years. I’ve read the books, seen the ‘specialists’, changed the drugs and danced all the dances. I have told the people I work with and for and all my friends and family so they are aware, it helps. My own mission staement is ‘go with the flow’.

  2. Thanks again for a wicked post!!! I know now I’m pushing myself too much and also my therapist seems to know little about depression and how it feels!!! Making me feel a little more inadequate than I already do!
    Thanks again 🙂

    • paulbrook76 says:

      Thank you! Glad it helped. It is really hard not to push yourself too hard. I ran my second 10k run about 2 years ago and was disappointed that my time was fractionally slower than the year before, despite the fact I’d really struggled to do any training. I am now learning to see that second run as a bigger achievement than the first. Just getting there was a big accomplishment.

  3. @onlyonewindy says:

    you are very good at explaining how deppression catches you and doesnt let go but im in the middle of attacking mine i too have written a blog about my recent expirence thanks for sharing yours.

  4. Romy says:

    Paul, is that the sort of difference that makes full blown depression instead of just being ‘a bit down’ – that if you’re suffering from depression you can’t see the that the roller coaster will be going up again – whereas those of us who are not sufferers may be down but experience says that we’ll be OK in a few days?
    I know that’s a rather badly expressed question but I want to ask because I always regard the roller coaster as positive rather than negative as I know it’ll go up too.

    • paulbrook76 says:

      Good question, Romy. I know what you mean. When you have depression, you worry that you might never get better, and it doesn’t feel like you will. Then you have a good day and think you’re on the mend, but when the next day isn’t so good it feels like a backward step and you start fearing the worst. It’s an example of ‘black and white thinking’ – you can think everything you’ve ever done to try and get better has been a complete waste of time if you have a few bad days. A bit like dieting, I suppose – someone is on a diet, then eats one crisp, decides they’ve ruined the whole thing and then eat one bag, then another, etc.
      I’m only just learning that this pattern of good days and bad days is a normal part of recovery, and that’s quite enlightening and reassuring. It’s not like the other illnesses I’m used to where you get ill, see a doctor, get some tablets, take them for a week, then get better. It’s much more drawn out and up and down.
      Does that make sense?

  5. K Evensen says:

    What I know about depression is that no two people’s story is the same. Each one of us has to find our own way along the crazy paving of life. I have spent many hours thinking (the curse of a depressive) about my brain and whether it is just wired differently to other people, people who seem to have an eternally sunny disposition and may have the odd blue day but would never call it depression. My perfect example is Davina McCall, I think she is fabulous and to me she seems as though her natural expression is to smile and be happy. That said, I did read recently that she had a troubled childhood and turned to drugs. We all have our lessons and ultimately that is what we are here for, to have experiences, learn from them and evolve.
    Remember what Shakespeare wrote (apt in that it is his birth and death day today) – “there is nothing either good or bad just thinking makes it so”.. This is something I re-member whenever I find myself spiralling into self critical thinking and I think is the key for me to cracking my episodes of depression.
    Personally I find depression a gift because when an episode arrives it is the opportunity for me to look at my life and see what is not flowing, where I am not being present and accepting what is. Depression takes you away from the present moment and denies you the gift of living in the here and now, which is a sure way to cause more suffering. One of the many light bulb moments I had was when I discovered Ekhart Tolle and read The Power of Now and A New Earth – the latter literally blew my mind because it just made so much sense. Likewise Byron Katie who invites you to do The Work will change your life completely. If you can have the courage and determination to do The Work your thinking will change – I’ve seen it happen for myself and many others when I attended her seminar in London last year. I invite you to check out Ekhart & Katie for yourself.
    So this crazy paving through depression may lead you to self medicate, take prescription drugs, speak to a therapist each week or just crawl under the duvet. It may also lead you to commit suicide. I know that what I write in the next few sentences may cause offence, for which I make no apology as these are my views and mine alone. I have often and I mean many many times contemplated ending my life but the thing about me is that I am a coward; it takes a lot of courage to end your life, to choose such a feat that will enable you to take your last breath and I don’t have that courage. I watched a documentary some years ago about young people in America who had an obsession with suicide and one boy in particular had planned his death for years from the San Francisco bridge. He fulfilled his purpose. What I found so enlightening was his parents saying that they understood his desire to die, that they had let him go and were happy that he was now at peace…How many of us would be able to say the same in that situation, but the thing is, it was his choice and by his parents letting him go they ended their own suffering and in turn their son’s.
    I suppose my bottom line is that I have a choice to get busy living or regret all the days I wasted not moving along my crazy path, yes I have episodes of depression and in these times I now just take good care of myself, engage in something other than my self depreciating chatter and reach out to others. The latter has taken me a long time to accomplish. I’m a Capricorn (no I don’t read daily horoscopes) and after following a daily tweet regarding Capricorn’s nature – I understand that I am naturally a loner, will turn inwards in times of stress, only trust a small number of loyal friends and don’t talk about problems – all of these traits I used to think were weaknesses, now I embrace them as who I am.
    It was Robert Shoesmith of “Bin There Done That” fame who recently said to me in a tweet that talking helps. I agree to a point, I am not going to start burdening my friends with my mind chatter but as I have done in the past few weeks is admit when I’m feeling down – and that has helped.
    What is important for me is not to label myself as a depressive or sufferer of mental ill health – simply I AM and that is ok with me. The more I learn to love myself enough, the more the shackles of my negative thinking break away. Maybe that comes with age and experience or maybe it is a conscious choice to just give myself a break and live the life I was destined for right here right now.
    I wish you all the very best on your journey – be gentle with yourself.
    I am on twitter @norskie_ke

  6. Scott says:

    I suffered depression for many years, on medication and counselling and the usual things. I know I still suffer with it now, but not so much.
    What has helped me (which is also fact) I moved away to a hot country. The sun, sea and sand are a great healer. Being in 30’C is just great. This move I did 7 years ago, has made me feel ALIVE again after years of woeful thoughts.

    I’m now in my mid 30’s and I haven’t regretted moving away from the UK at all. I know I feel happier within myself and more confident as a person. I recommend other to try drastic measures as it does seem to help.

  7. Me too Paul. I was in the pits for six months, but the bewildering time was the 6-9 months of recovery that followed. My advice would be not to reduce the meds until you’ve had long stretches of serenity – and even then you should do it very gradually. Have written more about all this here http://www.amazon.co.uk/Underneath-Lemon-Tree-Depression-Recovery/dp/1408703785/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1335371644&sr=1-1

  8. Hi, thank you for a wonderful piece which I have been thinking for sometime myself. Thanks to Ronan Keating I have that song permantley singing while I travel on my own roller coaster – personally I liken my own ride to something at Alton Towers similar to the Nemesis ride (argh).

    I hope that you managed to find that balance in life, between life and medication. It is a long ride that you go through, that I unfortunately haven’t been able to manage myself, but I do know people that have been successful in this mission. It is these people I look to so I can believe that I can get there.

    Good luck in your ‘journey’.


    P.s. Please feel free to nosey around my crazy world of living with a mood disorder (http://traceypallett.wordpress.com/)

  9. expatlogue says:

    Good old Ronan. Mind you, he knows what he’s talking about. He had a rough time of it, losing his mum to cancer, Stephen Gately’s sudden death, and other stuff along the way.
    The worst thing about depression is the weight of expectation. This is what makes us feel inadequate or push ourselves into burnout. If the world just accepted that sometimes people need time, space, love and understanding – a free rein to give themselves a break, things would be easier for us. Society sees us as broken and waits for us to get fixed… has nobody noticed this course of action isn’t working?
    If more thought was given to living with depression instead of making it go away, the world might be all the better for it.

    I was depressed for 15 years. I was diagnosed in my twenties with Borderline Personality Disorder. It’s a part of my make-up, like my eye-colour and right-handedness. It’s not going to go away. The right drugs, CBT and love and support helped me to stop trying to harm or obliterate myself. I now have a driving license, a husband and three children. I learnt to accept what I am and adapt my life. So far, it’s working… You can find me on my blog Expatlogue, where I write about mental illness, being an expat in Canada and the challenges of a mixed-race marriage.

  10. Basin says:

    Hi Paul,
    I love your honesty and sincerity. I have also understood life to be a roller coaster of emotions and situations of which I have little control. I suppose many get so used to it that they even dare I say it “enjoy it”. Many try and cope using what ever tools and strategies they have developed over the years. There are those who can’t cope and are looking for solutions, an antidote to this sea sickness. Then there are those who want to jump off and escape the ride.
    I feel that you have hit the nail on the head, find a place where there is a stillness, where it is possible to rest, even for a moment and feel satisfied.
    Kind Regards
    Basinbanks on twitter

  11. Great blog, enjoyed it and chimed in my with thoughts and experiences too. I am a big fan of Tim Cantophers book and Mark Rice Oxley’s is excellent.
    Here’s my blog if you’re fancy a look.

  12. Isabel says:

    Thank you for this amazing piece. I am suffering from post-cancer depression (or low mood but it feels like a dark and crappy place to me, on the bad days). I recently had 19 consecutive good days! woohoo! and I thought that finally I was climbing out (it’s been 6+ months) but I’ve now had 4 really bad days; the grenade thing is a great image, I feel like I could burst, and that that bursting would hurt others – not that I can say how. Just thankyou for saying that that’s normal – and that there will be ups to come… :kiss:

    • paulbrook76 says:

      Thanks Isabel. Glad it helped. I am now off my antidepressants and feeling well, but even now there are bad days, particularly mornings. But the dark moods don’t last as long and I spot them sooner.
      19 consecutive good days is brilliant! The bad days can feel like a return to the dark times but once you can see them as a patch you’re going through, it feels easier to get your perspective back and get through to better times.
      Wishing you all the best for your recovery,

      • Isabel says:

        Thank you so much for replying! I’m very glad you are feeling well. Mornings can be a bit of a beggar! Although at the minute, I have a morning routine that generally tides me over until 09:00, and an evening routine that kicks in from 18:00, and I’m sleeping very well (God bless amitriptyline, a tiny 10mg dose but it works!), so it’s just “just!” 9 hours to wade through.
        When the bad patches come back, it seems to feel as though they’re here for ever, almost harder than when it first began; but you’re right to remind us that the rollercoaster does go upwards again – eventually!

        Kind regards.

  13. […] 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, […]

  14. […] 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 […]

  15. […] latest dip in my rollercoaster recovery began towards the end of last summer. These late-summer plunges have happened before in the last […]

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