The awakening: life beyond depression

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.

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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.

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The Promised Land beyond depression

It’s 50 years since Dr Martin Luther King Jr gave his ‘I have a dream’ speech in Washington, but another of his speeches has stuck in my mind as a beacon of hope as I’ve fought depression.

Here’s an excerpt from it:

“… I’ve been to the mountaintop … And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land… I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.”

I’ve often referred to life beyond depression as my Promised Land – a place it’s been a struggle to reach, but which I’ve never lost hope of discovering.

Here’s something I wrote in May 2012, as I was emerging from depression and starting to feel better:

“I haven’t reached my Promised Land yet, but I am hopeful that I will, and that it will be flowing with milk and honey. And maybe a cool beer. If your boat is still lurching about on the high seas, and the pirates have hijacked it, hold firm and set your course for the coast. We will be the winners in this swashbuckling adventure, and the riches shall be ours, me hearties.”

Like Dr King, I feel like I have seen the Promised Land. In fact, I’ve marched down the other side of the mountain and have one foot on the green pastures. One obstacle remains for me – coming off my antidepressants. After a failed attempt earlier this year, I’ve gone from strength to strength and have reduced my dose almost – but not quite – as low as it can go. It feels good, and, to paraphrase Dr King, I’m not fearing anything. I feel sharp, alert, and back in control of what my brain is doing. I can enjoy my life again, and will never again take that feeling of enjoyment and happiness for granted.

When you’re in the deep trough of depression, you feel like you will never get out. Even when you manage to take a few steps out of it, the path gets rocky, and you can easily stumble and fall. It seems never-ending. The sides of the trough are just too steep and treacherous. The light feels too far away.

All I can say is don’t give up hope. I think one of my favourite singers, Sam Cooke, put it perfectly in his incredible song A Change Is Gonna Come. Written five years before Dr King’s death, the song was about civil rights, but Cooke’s words bring comfort and hope whatever your battle:

There’ve been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long

But now I think I’m able to carry on

It’s been a long, long time coming

But I know a change gonna come

For me, yes, it’s been a long time coming, but that change has come. Next stop: the Promised Land.


Life is looking up

When I was going through the worst of my depression, I seemed to spend a lot of time looking down.

I’d be walking along hunched over, staring at the floor, feeling smaller than my real height. My head seemed to be bowed a lot of the time. It was heavy, dragged down by the weight of my intensely negative thoughts. Staring at the floor is useful for avoiding dog poo and falling down holes, but beyond that it doesn’t have much going for it.

Looking up, on the other hand, can be a rewarding and glorious experience. Sun, moon, clouds, stars, sunsets, rainbows, birds, bats, treetops – you don’t see any of those things by staring at the ground. It can feel like a big effort to lift your head in the darkest times, but there’s a world up there to lift your spirits, however fleetingly.

On my favourite album – The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society – there’s a song by my favourite songwriter, Ray Davies, called Big Sky, and it sums up rather nicely what I’m saying:

And when I feel

That the world’s too much for me

I think of the big sky

And nothing matters much to me

Another wise man, David Lindo (also known as the Urban Birder), lists ‘look up’ as his number one birding tip. You never know what might be flying over. This week I’ve watched a heron and two buzzards flying over while I’ve been stuck in traffic on the way to work.

I try to get out for a walk as often as possible now, and looking up is a big part of the pleasure I get from doing so. I also find inspiration in the sky for photos and often stop to point my mobile up in the air (it does have a camera – I’m not just thrusting a phone skywards).

Here are some of the pictures I’ve taken this year by doing just that. Why not lift up your eyes to the uplifting skies and let the light in?

Homestead Lawn Feb 2013 (1) IMG_0023 IMG_0030 IMG_0034 IMG_0120 IMG_0131 sun and cloud wheel IMG_0133 IMG_0137 IMG_0268 IMG_0274 IMG_0284 IMG_0293 IMG_0061


Five unexpected ways children change your life

“Having children will change your life,” people told me before I became a dad.

It was hard to appreciate exactly what they meant until it happened, but the other day a train went past as I was walking into town and I had a barely controllable urge to point at it and shout “Look! Train!”

Having children makes you see the world through different eyes. Fatherhood has given me – a born worrier at the best of times – new things to worry about (I’ve never driven so carefully as the day I drove home with my baby daughter in the back of the car), but also magical moments to savour and celebrate. There’s something uniquely wonderful about sharing your child’s little achievements, like taking their first steps, counting to five for the first time, learning to read…

Here are five small examples of how life is never the same once you’re a parent:

You get excited about vehicles – and might even wave at them

Young children – especially little boys – love vehicles, especially trains, tractors and diggers. These modes of transport may not excite you personally, but once you get in the habit of pointing them out, it’s difficult to stop, even if you’re on your own.

The ultimate vehicular excitement is if someone in that vehicle – it could be a passing boat or train – waves at your child or, if it’s a car, honks their horn. My kids watched cars passing under a bridge when we were out on a walk, and when one of the drivers saw them and honked his horn, they squealed with delight. It’s hard not to share that thrill.

Steam train, Llanberis, Snowdonia

Look, a train!

You become obsessed with poo and wee

Your children will, at some stage, develop a fascination with poo and wee. They will probably make up songs about them. Poo and wee are hilarious. Fact.

They’re not the only ones who are obsessed with poo and wee, though. You probably reach the obsessive stage before they do, and you’ll soon find yourselves discussing what was in your child’s nappy – “It looked like chicken korma!” – or how many times they’ve used their potty. You won’t just discuss it between yourselves; you’ll chat in detail about poo and wee with other parents, or even non-parents, quite possibly while eating tea.

You’ll develop an in-built toilet tracker

You’re planning a trip out. What is the single most important thing you need to know if you have young children? Where the toilets are. Because the poo and wee obsession carries over into a very practical need to know the location of every toilet in the vicinity.

At some point in your outing, you will hear the alarming phrase “Daddy, I really need a wee!” and your toilet-locating reflex will kick in. You will never hear a child say “I think I will need a wee in ten minutes so I’m just warning you”. The need for the toilet will be a full-on, red-alert emergency and the bit of your brain that says “Marks and Spencer, top of the escalator, turn right” is all that can save you from disaster.

You will have to sing in front of people

Children like learning songs and, until they become painfully self-conscious, will enjoy performing their songs to you. You don’t get away with just listening, though. You will often be required to sing songs to them, either for their amusement or so they can learn the words.

There is no humiliation filter, though. They will inevitably want you to sing in front of other people. I had to perform “We represent the Lollipop Guild” in the style of Munchkins from the Wizard of Oz in front of two friends from work. They’d only popped in for a coffee.

You will become soppy

The way you love your children will change you forever. It has made me become a soppy fool. I suddenly see everyone as someone’s child, who needs love and encouragement.

I’d never cried at a film or TV programme before I had children (except ET when I was six). Recently, I’ve cried at two episodes of The Ghost Whisperer, and I even get a lump in my throat watching wildlife documentaries. Why are there always baby elephants getting lost and looking for their mum and dad?


Dippyman v depression: the first year

One year ago, I sat down to write my first Dippyman blog post – a whimsical piece about the timeless delights of a seaside holiday in Filey. The year, and the theme of my blog, came to be dominated by something far less jolly.

I’d set up the blog about a month before but wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to write about. I just knew I wanted to write. I toyed with the idea of writing about what it was like to turn 35, but realised that if I didn’t care what it was like to turn 35 nobody else would either. I thought maybe I would write about birds, and indeed I did, although just the once so far.

Once I got started, I thoroughly enjoyed writing, and went on to describe things that amused or interested me, but it was something that was completely devoid of amusement that launched my blog in a new direction – depression.

When I started writing Dippyman, I had been living with depression for nearly two years. I’d been on antidepressants for more than a year and had finished my first round of counselling. As the summer went on, I felt well enough to lower the dose of my medication and that went well for a while, but in my haste to leave the tablets – and (I thought) my depression – behind, I went further than my moods would allow, and had to increase the dose again before the summer had ended. My stress levels were building up.

In September, I wrote about depression for the first time, likening stress and depression to Darth Vader and the Emperor from the Star Wars films. It was a big step to take. I’d only told a handful of people how I’d been feeling, and friends and colleagues reading about it were surprised. I’d obviously hidden it well, although that did me a fat lot of good. Being open about my illness made it easier – less like a dirty secret.

I returned to chirpier subjects for a while, but depression had a sting in its tail. Well, I say a ‘sting in its tail’ – it was more like a whopping great boxing glove smashing me in the face. Bash, bash, bash. It hit me with a knockout blow on 13th October, when I found myself dazed and confused, asking ‘Can brains explode?

I staggered zombie-like through a day at work on the 14th, but it was a case of the lights being on (perhaps with a dimmer switch) and nobody being home. My self-esteem plummeted. My moods turned black. The insomnia started. A star was born – my twisted, shadowy alter-ego, Paul Brookes, who made frequent appearances in my blog posts during the bleakest months of my life.

When I was feeling most dreadful, when I was off work and had increased the dose of my antidepressants, something unexpected happened. My blog took off. I’d read on Twitter that some people were using the phrase ‘mental health day’ as a euphemism for throwing a sickie, or skiving off work. I was enraged – perhaps not surprisingly, given my circumstances at the time – so I wrote about it. A friend at work tweeted the link to Alastair Campbell, who read it, described it as ‘excellent’, and shared it with his thousands of followers. It didn’t stop there. Next I spotted a tweet from Jeremy Vine, who also shared the link, saying:

“Man writes brilliant blog about his depression”

The response was way beyond anything I could have expected. Nearly 1,500 people read what I’d written in one day alone. I was overwhelmed and humbled, and in my depressed state didn’t really know what to make of it all, so I just kept writing about how I was feeling. It was quite therapeutic, and the supportive and encouraging comments I was getting – and have carried on getting since (thanks everyone!) – helped me to keep going, at a time when I would be sitting in my car praying for enough strength to cope with the day ahead, lying wide-awake at night silently pleading for sleep, or staring into the distance with an unseen enemy feasting on the destructive thoughts in my head.

Since then, I’ve been privileged to write about depression for a number of great organisations, websites and magazines, have written 40 blog posts (41 now), and my site stats tell me that the pages of Dippyman have received more than 33,600 visits at the time of writing. On one crazy day in January, more than 2,500 people visited in one day, after more kind tweets from those top gents Vine and Campbell and a one-off retweet from Twitter colossus Stephen Fry.

Reading this objectively, it could sound like I’m blowing my own trumpet. Apologies if it comes across that way. Really, it’s just my way of proving to myself – reminding myself – that from the abject misery of depression, something to be proud of has risen. I felt like nobody and this blog, and more importantly the support, encouragement and goodwill that so many people – friends, relatives and strangers alike – have given me, has helped me to feel like somebody.

The blogging year ends with Brookes as the nobody – a fate he deserved all along.

I’ll end this anniversary post the way I started Dippyman last July, with a happy memory of the seaside. I was in Filey again last week, and took this photo of a lifeboat, which – with its bright colours and the promise of help for people lost at sea – seems a fitting way to sign off.


Blogging at the crossroads

Legend has it that blues singer/guitarist Robert Johnson met the devil at a crossroads and agreed to sell his soul in exchange for his musical talent.

I’m at a crossroads myself. I won’t be making any deals with the devil, but I could do with some inspiration on the writing front.

The crossroads in question is a blogging crossroads. The road I have been travelling seems to have reached a confusing junction. It has been a good journey, but what has brought me this far might not take me much further.

If this blog was a TV series, its declining viewing figures would point to inevitable cancellation. That’s the danger of studying blog stats – when it’s going well, the incoming comments and viewing figures are addictively enthralling. When you post something and the figures are low, it’s demoralising. The unhelpful voice in my head tells me to give up; that I’m a has-been. It compares me to other bloggers and says “They’re doing better than you. Why do you bother?”

I find myself wondering what to write about, and indeed whether to keep blogging at all, as I have plenty of other things to keep me occupied. On the occasions I have time to blog, sometimes I just can’t be bothered. Other times, I’ve got an idea for a blog and talk myself out of writing it because I don’t think anyone will be interested – and I’m not even sure that I’m interested myself. I’ve talked myself out of writing this post several times and am only really posting it to spite myself.

My writing was most compelling when I was ill with depression. I wrote because I needed to get it all out of my head, and people seemed to relate to it.

But I’m happy to say I’m not ill any more. As I’ve got better, the story has become less gripping, and fewer people read it and feel moved to share it. And I don’t have that same drive and impetus to blog at the moment. I used to post almost every week. Now it’s once a month, if that. The momentum has gone.

I’ve written a lot about depression and sometimes wonder if there’s anything useful I can do with that back catalogue. I’m proud of what I’ve done, and hugely grateful for all the amazing support you’ve given me. I know from the comments I’ve received that my blog has helped a lot of people, which I love to hear. In return, every comment, retweet or like has helped me.

To be honest, though, I’m not sure I have much left to say about depression. I’ve been writing about it since 2011 and don’t want to keep dredging up memories that I’d rather forget. And I don’t want to bore people, or myself, by going over the same things over and over again. On the other hand, supporting people with mental health problems is something I really care about, and writing is one way I can do that. I’ve got to know many brilliant people through sharing my story – people whose friendship has enriched my life – and we all need to stick together to fight the stigma of mental illness.

I do love writing about wildlife, especially birds. Birding is something that helps me stay well, and I mainly write about what helps me to keep depression away these days, rather than depression itself. But I don’t think I want to restrict myself to a theme. I like writing about random stuff like pantomimes and music too.

I’ve written light-hearted stuff about parenting, but my kids are getting older and I don’t want to embarrass them – not in a blog anyway.

I also fancy writing more fiction and comedy. But is this blog the right place for that?

And so I stand at the crossroads. I know I want to write (sometimes anyway), but I’m not sure what. In some ways, it’s like starting again.

But there is only one of me. I have a finite amount of time, energy and inspiration. So another factor to fit into the equation – along with all the many other things I want to do all at once – is finding time to relax, and simply to be.

The main thing is that I stay well. I’ve burned myself out before and am always on guard against doing it again. I’m grateful to be well enough to have reached the crossroads, however frustrating it may be.

So, I don’t know what you can expect from Dippyman in the coming months. What do you think I should do?

 


Goodbye antidepressants

When you ask most people “What are the magic words?” they’ll answer “Please” or “Abracadabra!”

Not me. I’d say “I’ve come off my antidepressants!” Those are the magic words I’ve wanted to say for three-and-a-half years. Now, at last, I can – and the more I say it, the better it feels.

This is the Promised Land I’ve been trying to reach for a long time. So what’s it like? Am I spending every waking moment skipping carefree through sunlit meadows, revelling in the trill of singing larks?

Well, no. There’s been no great revelation. Life has not changed immediately for the better. In fact, the first couple of days free of the tablets have been rather underwhelming. Life carries on being busy in its usual way.

But what I have to try to remember is what has already changed.

It’s hard now to recall exactly what depression felt like at its very worst – perhaps because I don’t want to recall it because it’s just too upsetting, and perhaps because my memory is one of the things that was most affected.

What I do remember is that three-and-a-half years ago I was feeling beaten up by life and was picking up my first packet of Citalopram to try and help me cope with it. Since then, I’ve increased and reduced my dose a few times, but never come off the medication. I’ve had a second major bout of depression and two rounds of counselling.

If I try a bit harder to remember, these things come to mind:

  • a deadening feeling of wanting to do nothing – just drifting around like a zombie, feeling shrunken, grey and old, gaining no pleasure from my life
  • a brain full of negative thoughts, anger and worries that destroyed my concentration and memory and kept me awake at night
  • a demolition of my confidence and self-esteem

You can see why I don’t want to remember those things.

The combination of medication, counselling, the kindness and support of my family, friends and colleagues, learning about depression through books and other people, and writing about it myself, has finally come together to get me through it.

Recovery from depression is, I’ve found, grindingly slow, and full of twists and turns. Just coming off the medication can take months or even years, but you simply can’t rush it. I have found this to my cost a couple of times, where I’ve decreased the dose by slightly too much too quickly and been overcome with an urge to scream and smash things.

BUT…

… I have recovered. I’ve done it. My mind is sharper again – most of the time. I feel better about myself. I enjoy and look forward to things.

My hope is that depression’s occupation of my life is over, and I’ve emerged stronger and a better, more self-aware and compassionate person.

I will probably always have to be on my guard against my old nemesis, Paul Brookes, who will occasionally peek out from a shadowy recess to see if he can get at me.

But I am arming myself against him by constantly learning ways of handling stress, frustration and worry and preventing them from becoming anything more sinister and destructive.

And, starting with this blog, I will reflect on what I’ve achieved and celebrate my triumph over an evil adversary. Starting with my first beer since the pre-Citalopram era…

Samuel Adams Boston Lager, in case you were wondering...

Samuel Adams Boston Lager, in case you were wondering…