So, you take your pills, have your therapy, learn some lessons, write a few blog posts, and your mental health problems go away and leave you in peace, right?
Well, maybe they do and maybe they don’t. Perhaps they go away for a while, then pay a return visit at a later date. But it’s also entirely possible that your enemies will become like the horror movie franchise villains who stubbornly refuse to die, and come back for seemingly endless sequels.
The latest dip in my rollercoaster recovery began towards the end of last summer. These late-summer plunges have happened before in the last few years, but to avoid the pattern becoming too predictable, depression and anxiety – being two sides of the same coin, and being partners in crime – like to mix things up and take it in turns to lead. One weighs in first, usually triggered by some kind of prolonged stress or worry, then the other puts the boot in.
They seem to lie in wait for a time when I’m winding down and starting to relax, so holidays can be a prime opportunity. That’s when all the pent-up mental poison starts to ooze out and build up, like that nasty pink slime in Ghostbusters 2.
What does it feel like?
My thoughts turn dark and destructive, the despondency and lethargy set in, and other symptoms start to show:
- irritability and anger – finding people insufferably annoying, especially those who dare exhibit any energy or enthusiasm when I have none
- illnesses – I’ve had a different illness every month since last October, ranging from a standard cold to lingering laryngitis, suggesting a run-down immune system
- despair and fear – seeing the worst in everything, and finding it hard to see things getting better
- paranoia and over-sensitivity – I get wound up by any little comment aimed at me, even if meant in jest, to the point that I get embroiled in a series of long-running imaginary arguments
- over-thinking, indecision and forgetfulness – the din in my weary brain makes any kind of thinking difficult, and impossible at times
- mornings are hideous – I haven’t had problems sleeping with my latest episode, but getting myself up and out in the morning still feels like I’m having to physically drag my leaden body to wherever it needs to go.
“I’m fine, thanks.”
I wonder how many times a day we get asked how we are, or we ask how other people are. It’s how we greet each other; part of everyday conversation.
I’m generally a very honest person, but I have lied to people. I have lied a lot. Because many times when I don’t feel fine in the slightest, I don’t want to say so. It’s not that I mind being asked, I just want to pretend I’m fine until the reality catches up, and I don’t want sympathy, or to drag other people down.
The confusing thing about depression and anxiety is that we can also feel perfectly fine for much of the time. Once I’ve got through the first half of the morning and got suitably distracted, I might well have a perfectly decent day, unless something triggers a negative thought. Then I’m at the mercy of spiralling, toxic thoughts and feelings.
I am fine right now, and have been fine for the past few days, and that is good enough for me. If I wasn’t feeling fine, I wouldn’t be writing this and I certainly wouldn’t be sharing it.
So what am I doing about it?
As I always do with these episodes of mental ill-health, I try to face up to my problems and get help in various ways.
I went to see an excellent doctor, and – with some hesitation – decided to team up again with my old pal Citalopram, an antidepressant that I’ve just about managed without since autumn 2013. I always thought I wouldn’t want to go back on the meds, but it was a better option than struggling on without them.
I’ve been on a course, learning tips from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and am on a waiting list for some further CBT to try and crack some persistent and recurring issues.
I’m trying to get out and enjoy nature as much as possible, so am grateful for the weather improving in the past week. The continuous rain and snow was, I think, getting me down more than I realised.
And I’ve finally found another kind of exercise that I’m enthusiastic about and committed to, having drifted terminally from running. I’ve joined a martial arts class after seeing how much my son loved it. The intense workouts leave me thinking I am either going to vomit or keel over, but it’s a good way to release tension and focus on something positive.
Perhaps my biggest lesson in these last few years has been that life does not have to be about doing, exceeding or producing stuff. There is great value in doing very little, or passing time in a not-obviously-productive kind of way – things like jigsaws, favourite TV programmes, games… and trying to rediscover hobbies like drawing birds.
I’ve also made a conscious decision not to set myself unnecessary challenges this year. Why add to the pressures of daily life?
To end on a positive note…
There is one consistently positive thing that recurrent depression and anxiety do for me. Each time they gang up on me, and I go through this gruelling experience, it makes me rethink and evaluate my life. What can I do differently? What’s harming me? What’s good for me? What have I tried that worked but I’ve forgotten or neglected? What haven’t I tried yet? Is there something I should give up? Something I want to find time for?
So I keep learning and arming myself against these attacks. I’m lucky in many ways – my depression and anxiety are fairly mild compared to what many people endure, and I have the support of great family and friends.
I’m sharing this not to alarm anyone, not to attract attention, or to elicit sympathy or pity, or to be considered brave, but just to be honest about my experiences in a society that still stigmatises people with mental health problems.
I was on BBC Breakfast recently talking about how getting outdoors and enjoying nature helps me with my mental health. But how exactly does it help?
I’m going to start with two quick disclaimers:
- I’m not a scientist, so I won’t try to give you any scientific evidence of how nature benefits mental health. This is all about my personal experience. But that evidence does exist, as Dr Andrea Mechelli explained alongside me on the BBC sofa (see pictures below). Find out more about the study from King’s College London.
- Nature alone does not cure depression, anxiety or any other mental health problem. It’s one part of a toolkit of coping strategies that can help us to manage our well-being.
My own personal mental health battles are with depression and anxiety, and I find that nature does help me in a number of ways.
Doing something I enjoy
When we’re worn down by stress, anxiety and depression, it’s easy to forget the things we used to enjoy doing – or how to enjoy doing anything for that matter.
A few years ago, when I was frazzled and going through an episode of depression, my counsellor encouraged me to find time to do something I enjoyed. I’d always enjoyed birdwatching and walking, and tried to get out more and rediscover the pleasure of my abandoned hobbies.
A positive focus and distraction
Absorbing ourselves in nature can turn a walk – or even just a nice sit down in a park or garden – into a mindful experience that focuses us on the present and takes us away from the churning thoughts that tumble round our heads and the anxiety that chews at our tummies.
Hear the breeze rustling the leaves in the treetops; listen to the birds singing; watch butterflies and bees flitting among your garden flowers… I find that even a few moments being completely distracted by wildlife usually has a calming effect on me and lifts my mood.
As well as the wildlife, experiencing different places – or just retreating to a favourite wild place – can be very therapeutic. I find being in woodland or by water especially soothing.
Being outdoors has other health benefits too – fresh air, sunlight and exercise are good for our physical health as well as our mental well-being.
Discovery, excitement and adventure
One thing I love about nature is that there is always something new to discover – new species to see, new places to visit, new behaviour to observe. I’ll never forget the wonder of watching badgers in a woodland clearing after years of waiting for even a passing glance of one. If I’m planning a birding trip, there’s that sense of anticipation and excitement at what I might see, and the thrill of seeing a rare bird for the first time.
But a new experience doesn’t have to mean a new species – it can mean finding something unexpected in a familiar place. While off work with depression, I took a short walk from home, and found yellow wagtails – glorious, sunny yellow birds – bobbing about in a field where I’d never seen them before.
Nature is everywhere
It’s an unfortunate truth of depression that the things that are best for us are often the hardest things to do. Even for someone like me, who loves being outdoors, the draining, soul-destroying experience of depression can completely kill off all energy or enthusiasm, making the prospect of going out for a walk feel like the last thing I want to do.
At those times, if we just can’t face going out, we can still enjoy nature without venturing out. If you can see the sky or a tree, lawn or plant from where you’re sitting, you can still look out for wildlife. It’s amazing how many different species you can see in a fairly short space of time.
I feed the birds in my garden and can lose myself watching them – the goldfinches jostling for position on a feeder, the blackbirds fending off rivals, the wren that always follows exactly the same route into our garden and disappears for a moment in a bush…
Accept that it’s not going to work every time
Sometimes nature will help you feel better, even if only for a short time. Other times, it will not – but that doesn’t mean we should give up.
There are occasions where my mood has been too dark – my thoughts too destructive and intrusive – for me to be able to get lost in the sights and sounds around me. There have been other times where I’ve felt crushing disappointment because I’ve ‘failed’ to see what I went out to look for (I’m trying to learn to manage my own expectations), or I’ve felt defeated and demoralised by the weather spoiling a day out.
One such day that stands out in my mind is when I took a day off work to go to Flamborough Head, one of my favourite places on the Yorkshire coast, on a mission to see some particular birds. I can’t remember what birds they were, but I can remember that I didn’t see them, and that I couldn’t even enjoy the beautiful scenery because of thick fog. I genuinely considered giving up on birdwatching that day – not only had I not seen what I’d wanted to see, the weather was manky, there was barely a bird of any kind to be found all day, and I was sick of dragging my telescope and rucksack around.
The bird that saved the day was an unlikely one. At the point of my greatest frustration, the movement of a small bird in the hedge up ahead caught my eye. I followed it, hoping it would reveal its identity, and it did. It was a male chaffinch – a very common bird, but a colourful one – and for some reason that splash of colour and the chaffinch’s perky character were enough to bring me back out of my brain fog. The actual fog lifted soon after that too, and I remember sitting on a bench, and discovering that a cup of tea tastes even better by the sea.
If you enjoyed this blog post, you might also like these:
- Dippyman: Birdwatching, depression and the BBC sofa
- Dippyman: Why birdwatching is good for my mental health
- My BBC Radio 4 Tweet of the Day on my encounter with a Water Rail
- Blurt Foundation blog: How nature helps me
- Bird Therapy blog by Joe Harkness
- Anxious Birding blog by Ian Young
I found myself on the BBC’s famous red sofa last Sunday morning – not for a tour of the studio or for a nice sit down, but for a live TV interview.
“Being on the telly” is one of those mysterious, magical things that many of us, including me, have daydreams about. People on the telly are a different breed of person, who are beamed onto our screens at home from some kind of strange, alternative universe. As I discovered, the world of BBC Breakfast is certainly very different to my own.
Birdwatching and depression
Last weekend, a new study was published, showing that birdwatching can have a positive effect on depression and anxiety, and I was plucked from obscurity to talk about this on BBC Breakfast and BBC Radio 5 Live. It wasn’t my study, of course, but I do write about birdwatching and mental health. A BBC producer had been looking for someone who could talk on the subject from personal experience, and stumbled across my blog.
Up until late Saturday afternoon, I wasn’t expecting any of this. I went swiftly from shopping at Tesco with my eight-year-old son to chatting on the phone with a member of the BBC Breakfast team just after 4.30pm. She asked if I’d like to be live on the show the next morning. I’d been planning a family trip out, so this unexpected development made my head spin a bit, but these opportunities don’t come up very often, so I said yes.
There then followed a whirlwind of crazy logistics. The studio is at Media City in Salford, and they wanted me on the show at 8.40am. The train times didn’t work out (I’d have had to get up at about 3am to get the only train available) so I agreed to drive over from my home near York. Another option was to travel over that evening and stay in Manchester, but I was going out with my wife and friends to see Sunny Afternoon, a musical about my favourite band, the Kinks, and I wasn’t going to miss out on that.
In the brief time between getting the call and going out, I had to send over some photos from my birdwatching trips (my photo of a great spotted woodpecker appeared as the backdrop to my interview) and try to get my head round what was going on.
There was more to come.
During Sunny Afternoon (which was brilliant), I could feel my phone buzzing in my pocket, and afterwards I discovered I’d had a call from the BBC 5 Live team – they wanted to speak to me live the next morning too. So I found myself on the phone two or three times between 11 and 11.20pm as we tried to fit this in. At one point, they wanted to talk to me at 7am and I was going to try and find somewhere to stop and do a phone interview on my drive over to Salford. Luckily, the 5 Live studio is one floor up from BBC Breakfast, the two teams exchanged notes, and I was booked in to talk on the radio at 8.20am, which meant an even earlier start.
So what was it all like?
Media City was spectacular for a start. It’s by the quayside in Salford, where an old industrial area is being gradually regenerated. I walked past the CBeebies office, and saw the studio where Shine, the BBC’s new talent show, is being filmed. Across the water I could see ITV and the Coronation Street studio.
The staff couldn’t have been nicer or more welcoming. I was greeted at reception and taken up to the green room, where guests wait before they go on air, but wasn’t there long before being whisked off with a cup of tea in hand to see the make-up man (he put on a bit of foundation and powder ‘for the lights’ in the studio – good job too, as the glare from my bald head would have dazzled the viewers).
From there, I went up to 5 Live, and within ten minutes was live on air. I sat down with a black microphone in front of me, opposite the two presenters, put on some headphones, and off we went. I spoke for about two minutes (it went well – here’s a recording), then was collected by my friendly host and taken to a comfy corner outside the BBC Breakfast studio.
From there, I was met by the floor manager and given my clip-on microphone, then when the time came, we crept into the studio and I waited for my turn to join presenters Ben Thompson and Rachel Burden on the big red sofa.
Both were lovely, and put me at ease. They were remarkably perky, given the horrible hours they must work. I wasn’t really conscious of the cameras – I just answered their questions as best I could and tried to remember key points from my blogs that I’d glanced at on my mobile.
It was quickly over, and I doubted whether it had actually happened, but when I got home, I was greeted by my two children bouncing up and down with giddy excitement at having seen their dad on the telly, then had the weird experience of watching myself on my own TV set (unfortunately it seems the programme isn’t available on iPlayer). I was happy I’d managed not to say anything stupid or pull any weird faces.
It just goes to show that sometimes extraordinary things happen to ordinary people, and – more importantly – that depression is not the end. We can live with it, and occasionally something good can come of it.
Oh, and seeing as I was home by 11am, we still managed a family trip out – just a less ambitious one.
Thanks to Jane Brook, Claire Vinent Yager and Michelle Atkins for the photos.