About five years ago my doctor told me I had depression.
On hindsight, the symptoms painted a pretty obvious picture. My head hurt every day. I’d been stressed out for months and was permanently tense and irritable. I was susceptible to every minor illness that was doing the rounds. I had no energy or enthusiasm, and had trouble sleeping. I couldn’t look forward to anything – instead, everything made me anxious and worried. My confidence and self-esteem seeped away, as did my memory.
From there came the antidepressants, the counselling and the realisation that many, many other people go through this same thing. I’ve learned a lot from depression, and have become wise to its tricks and traps. Recovery isn’t about being miraculously cured and leaping with joy every moment of every day. It’s about feeling better, staying well and finding ways to cope if I feel depression’s malevolent presence – and, ideally, heading it off before it manages to get a hold.
All kinds of things can help in some small way, but one thing I’ve stuck with ever since my first round of counselling is my book. You could call it a ‘positivity diary’ if you like. To me it’s just ‘my book’. It’s a notebook that I write positive things in every day (or most days – the odd one gets missed out and I don’t berate myself for that, otherwise my perfectionist gremlins might come out and bash me over the head).
I use the book to keep a record of good things that happen to me – things I’ve enjoyed, kind words people have said to me or about me, small successes… When I started it, I believed I wasn’t good enough and was finding little pleasure in anything. The idea of the book was to tackle those two perspectives one day at a time.
If you can find something positive in each day, however small, it starts a positive cycle. It gradually builds up so that you’re encouraged and reminded to keep looking – and when times are particularly hard, the stuff you’ve written down is your evidence against the accusing voice telling you you’re not good enough and that nothing good ever happens. It also helps you to appreciate and savour good things as they’re happening to you. It can be incredibly easy to forget them all. Even if writing in the book doesn’t seem to make any difference at the time, it might be just what you need some time in the future.
Remembering to read the diary from time to time is an important part of making it work for you. I was feeling a bit battered and low on confidence recently so decided to read through my diaries, right from the very start (not all in one go – there are five full books to get through).
I’m finding it a genuinely uplifting and humbling experience, reliving forgotten moments and recalling achievements and happy times, whether I was on great form at the time or just trying to find a gap in the clouds.
I used to also keep a record of things I’d found difficult or stressful, to try and learn from them, and I wrote those down in the back of my books. It’s been interesting to look back on those too, but they can also take me back to things I don’t want to remember. Writing them down served a purpose at the time, but I’m glad I stopped doing so. I’ve learned just as much by refreshing my memory about good things I’ve done.
My first diary pre-dated my first foray into blogging, so I’ve also been following the history of Dippyman from its origins to the present day. If you’ve ever read, liked, shared or commented on one of my blog posts, thank you – you’ve played a part in my book and, in turn, in my recovery.
When I hear about ‘positive thinking’, my immediate reaction is to screw up my face and shudder with revulsion. This year I’m aiming to change that, for my own good, and in my own way. I’ll tell you why in just a moment.
First, though, I do need to have a quick rant about positive thinking, just to get it out of my system.
The phrase ‘positive thinking’ conjures up images of excessively cheery people, bounding around with ceaseless, inexplicable joy, squirting out irritating, glib catchphrases like “There are no problems, only opportunities”.
I associate ‘positive thinking’ with the kind of grating, false positivity that’s often touted in a supposedly motivational way. I was once at a conference, eating my dinner and chatting to the people I was sitting with, when a motivational speaker popped up and began to address us. The one thing I remember from his talk was his method for dealing with people who weren’t positive. If someone objected, complained, or appeared disgruntled, however justifiably, he would shout ‘FANTASTIC!’ in their faces. As a motivator, he was actually very effective – a number of people felt highly motivated to leave the company soon after that conference.
It’s not that I’m a ‘the glass is half empty’ sort of person. I’m not really a ‘glass half full’ person either. I’m more of a ‘there’s some water in the glass’ person. I’d class myself as a realist, rather than an optimist or a pessimist.
I have to admit, though, that when I think about something, I tend to think through the difficulties or problems before I get to the good bits. When it comes to managing difficult projects, which is something I do quite a lot, identifying problems is actually quite a useful skill, and part of making sure the project is successful.
But it’s less useful when it comes to most other things. The more problems you can foresee, the more difficult something appears. And the more difficult something appears, the less likely you are to do it. And the less likely you are to do something, the less likely you are to get anywhere. So you stop trying to get anywhere, then you get frustrated at yourself for not getting anywhere. That kind of thinking is a dream killer of the highest order. It stops you thinking ‘What if?’ and drives you down the road of ‘You can’t’.
I recognise that pattern of negative thinking from my experience of depression. It’s my default setting – imagine the worst first. Even now I’m feeling better, all it takes is tiredness, hunger or a difficult day, and the negative-thinking demons start dancing a gleeful jig in my brain, dragging me down.
I decided at the end of last year that I would try to be more positive this year. However, I started writing this in December and only now, at the end of February, am I posting it – because I didn’t feel positive enough.
I’ve come to realise that what I need is not just an unthinking dollop of positive thinking, but just to try and see the positive side of something first, before the negative jumps in. It’s hard. It involves changing years of habitually doing the opposite. But I don’t want those dancing demons to get the upper hand again, so it’s got to be worth a shot.
Even if you haven’t experienced a mental health problem yourself, you’ll know someone who has. And chances are they haven’t told you about it.
This Thursday, Time to Change is encouraging people to take five minutes to talk about mental health.
Here are five reasons why I keep talking about depression – and why I would urge you to do the same, whatever your mental health problem:
- Talking makes a difference. The more I’ve talked about my experiences of depression, the more I’ve realised I’m not alone. Countless others have similar experiences and we can all learn from each other. It might seem daunting, but I have benefited enormously from taking the plunge and sharing my experiences four years ago. While medication and time off can play a vital part in coping with depression, I believe that talking therapies – as well as talking to friends, relatives, colleagues and other people who are happy to share their experiences – offer the best chance of finding a long-term way of managing and overcoming it. Counselling has been a huge help to me in the last few years.
- Mental health problems are nothing to be ashamed of. They are not your fault. But we act like they are, and we often believe they are. As a society, we need to recognise these facts, talk openly about them and remove the stigma.
- People still get in a muddle over the difference between feeling depressed (a passing mood) and depression (a mental health problem). This confusion is betrayed by phrases like “What’s he got to be depressed about?” when people are discussing depression. We’re not talking about a lifestyle choice here, people. Would you ask me what I’ve got to be asthmatic about? Would you advise me to snap out of my hayfever? It’s easy to make these throwaway judgements and suggestions until you’ve experienced depression yourself – then you know that depression is a cruel condition that dictates your life and affects you in all kinds of hideous mental and physical ways. Attitudes are easier to change, so let’s snap out of our ignorance.
- If people with mental health problems don’t get the help and support they need, it can make their problems worse, reduce their chances of coping and feeling better, and can be very dangerous. There are several reasons for this, and not all can be solved by talking about our problems (waiting times for therapy, for example), but we can all make it feel more socially acceptable for people to talk openly about their mental health.
- Depression thrives on secrecy. It is a shadowy menace, like Harry Potter’s nemesis, Voldemort – an enemy so terrifying that people don’t speak his name. Do we want the bad guy to win, or are we going to rise up against him and banish him forever?
Five years ago, depression broke into my life.
Its partners in crime – stress, worry and exhaustion – distracted me at the front door, while depression sneaked round the back.
Once inside, he made himself at home, feeding off my anxiety and insecurity, and using up all my energy. He took me hostage and made my life his own. I wasn’t looking forward to anything – everything we did seemed to be on his terms.
After a while, I got some help. Citalopram, an antidepressant, gradually offered me some protection against the tension and headaches, but it was counselling that really started to make a difference. Talking through my problems and how I was feeling helped me come to terms with it and think about what I could do to cope better with my enemy.
After a while, things seemed to be getting better, and I didn’t feel my intruder’s crushing presence as strongly. Had he gone?
Well, if he had, he hadn’t gone far.
Stress came beating on the door again, and this time depression’s attack was far less subtle. He flattened the front door, broke all the windows and beat me up. He cruelly brought insomnia with him. Sleep deprivation and dark moods are a destructive cycle. I had time off work, upped the dose of my Citalopram again, and returned to the counsellor a few months later.
I did find a new weapon against my enemy during that difficult time, though. I’d started a blog a couple of months earlier. It wasn’t about depression – it was about fun stuff like birds, Elvis and the seaside. But once I started to blog about my experiences of depression, I found loads of other people going through it too, or who had some experience of it – friends and strangers alike. Someone recommended a book called ‘Depressive Illness: The Curse of the Strong’ by Dr Tim Cantopher, and I found it was the only book on the subject that I could read and understand.
Along with these new allies, family and friends gave me invaluable support, and with further help from the counsellor and GP I started to fight back against depression. Eventually I was able to try reducing the dose of my antidepressants. It took a long time, but I stopped taking them last October.
So, does that mean depression has gone away for good? No, he doesn’t give up that easily. He keeps trying. He’s stubborn. Perhaps he gets that from me. There are times when it feels like he has gone far away, and other times when he’s got his nose pressed against the window, waiting for an opportunity to strike.
The crucial thing is that I know about him. I have exposed him and learned his tricksy ways. I know what he is up to. It is hard to keep an eye on him all the time, and it feels like I constantly have to outwit him, but now my intruder alarm is set to ring BEFORE he gets in.
- First published by York Mind.
Dads have a duty to embarrass their children, and I like to think I perform the role pretty well. But yesterday I was within a second of entering the dads’ hall of fame for excruciating embarrassment.
We’d gone out for lunch – my wife, nine-year-old daughter, six-year-old son and I – to an Italian restaurant, to celebrate my wife’s birthday.
It was all very enjoyable, and the only embarrassment I caused during the meal itself was for my wife, when she became the centre of attention for a rousing chorus of ‘happy birthday’.
My brush with notoriety came as we were leaving the restaurant. As we neared the door, I found the waiter standing in front of me, with his arms outstretched and a big, daft grin on his face.
I was struck by panic. What was happening? Did he really want to hug me? I mean, he was a nice man but I didn’t think we got on THAT well. I’ve never hugged waiters anywhere else. I wasn’t prepared for it.
He did seem very enthusiastic about it, though. I wondered if it was an Italian custom and didn’t want to cause offence by snubbing his warm gesture.
It was all a bit awkward, though. Why me? There didn’t seem to be any other hugging going on. And he was about a foot-and-a-half shorter than me, which would add an extra level of awkwardness to our impending embrace. I’d either have to stoop (ungainly) or pick him up (just weird).
Caught in a moment of indecision, I felt my arms rising into cuddle position. I was about to give him the most awkward hug ever, when I noticed he had a lollipop in each hand and was actually handing them to the kids, who were standing either side of me.
Breathing a sigh of relief, and thanking my unwitting would-be hugger, we left the restaurant, and I revealed to my unsuspecting family what had almost happened.
It would have been social awkwardness on a whole new level, and I’d have surely had to stay away from the restaurant and surrounding areas for at least five years.
A brush with infamy narrowly avoided, we drove off guffawing at my silliness.
I may have dodged the hall of fame, but I like to think my cringe-worthy near miss has at least given my children a glimpse of how humiliating their futures could be and scored me some bonus embarrassing dad points.
It is one year since I last took an antidepressant, and I am going to celebrate – not because I feel wonderful and am bursting with elation, but because I want to rub depression’s face in it.
I’m going to celebrate because I do not want this milestone to pass without pausing to reflect on it. And that’s the kind of celebration it will be – a quiet, reflective one. Armed with a posh hot chocolate, I have sat myself down to write my first blog post for a couple of months, mainly out of sheer stubbornness (I put this evening aside to write, so that is what I am doing) but also because I get the feeling Paul Brookes – the name I give my depression – doesn’t want me to. And I will not let him have his way any more.
It has, at times, and for some prolonged periods, been a tough year without Citalopram, which was, after all, my constant companion for three-and-a-half years, and there have been moments when I’ve been very close to reuniting with it.
Brookes has lined up his henchmen, stress and anxiety, and sent them round to rough me up on a number of occasions, thinking that when they’ve given me a beating he can sneak back in. And he has come very close to doing just that.
The difference between now and five years ago, when he crept up on me for the first time, or three years ago, when he reappeared with brute force, is that I am wise to his ways. I can hear his stealthy footsteps. I can see his shadow on the wall. I can sense his malicious presence.
The fear is still the same. He still scares me. The innate caveman instincts of fight and flight kick in – I want to run away from my troubles, and end up fighting those henchmen day after day.
But, to a certain extent, I know what to do about it. I have learned how to look after myself. That’s all very well, but the trick I have yet to master is how to remember and do those things when I’m feeling weary, worn down, battered and lethargic, or when my stress levels are threatening to make my eyes pop out.
In those times when Brookes attacks, I need more than my natural fight and flight instincts, so I am building up a virtual box of tricks – some emergency rations for my well-being, and some weapons against the dark one’s powers. To outfox my enemy, this box will need to be crammed full of quickly accessible wisdom and self-care. I will need ways of reminding myself what is in the box, and ways of remembering to look inside it.
The first thing to go in the box will be a bit of self-praise. Well done, Paul. You did it. You made it through a year without Citalopram, hard though it may have been at times. And you wrote this blog when you really couldn’t be bothered.
The second thing will be to look back on all the good things that have happened, which can be too easy to forget. Good job I keep a book of such things (note to self – remember to look at it).
Oh yeah, and Brookes? I may not be jumping for joy, but I’m not dancing to your tune either. And if that isn’t worth celebrating, I don’t know what is.
I must confess, I have not actually run with an otter (sounds like fun, though, and I might win if we had a race). I haven’t exactly talked to one either (again, sounds like fun). But I did see one for the first time this week, I have done a run, I am about to give my first talk on depression, and I only have time to write one blog post, so I’ve mixed them all together.
At the start of August, I ran the York 10K with my friends Kate and Keith in memory of Dan Rhodes, my friend who took his own life this January after a long battle with mental illness. Big thanks to everyone who sponsored us – we raised £382.50 for Dan’s memorial fund at Jubilee Church Hull, which will be used to provide facilities and education for homeless and vulnerable people in Hull. Donations still very welcome!
Here’s photographic proof that I did it, finishing with a face as red as my T-shirt.
The run ended up being rather more challenging than expected, as I came down with a cold and spent the two nights before the big day coughing horribly (not that anyone ever coughs nicely). There was no way I was going to miss it, though, even if I had to walk all the way.
As it turned out, the hindrance of my lurgy made me do some unusually positive thinking. With each kilometre I ran, I congratulated myself on another km that I didn’t think I’d be able to do, until I found myself panting my way to the finish line, having run all the way.
From one challenge to another…
I’ve written a lot about my experiences of depression, and chatted to a lot of people about it. I’ve even done a couple of radio interviews, like this one on BBC Radio York last week (listen from 08:45 for about six minutes). However, public speaking is an exciting yet terrifying new venture, and that’s what I’ll be doing this Saturday. I’m joining the brilliant Jayne Hardy and Lotte Lane in London to talk about depression and self-care at the first BLURT Talks event, run by the Blurt Foundation. There are still some tickets left – come along and see me face my fears!
Every year, my dad and I go for a day’s walking somewhere. This year, we decided to spend the best part of a day at the RPSB’s Leighton Moss reserve in Lancashire, and a very wise decision that turned out to be.
It was one of those rare, magical days when we happened to be in the right places at the right times.
I’d heard that great white egrets had been seen at Leighton Moss and – being a keen birder and never having seen one before – was keen to clap my eyes on one.
The staff told us where the egrets had most recently been seen. We walked into the hide and found a small, excited group of visitors who’d just spotted an otter!
After straining my eyes for a couple of minutes, I saw it too – first an arched back, breaking the surface of the water like a miniature whale, then a head popped up, then there was a flick of a pointed tail. For a good ten minutes, the cheeky beast played hide and seek with us, swimming rapidly back and forth, disappearing then reappearing. Having already seen my first living badger earlier this year, it seemed too good to be true that I’d just seen my first otter as well.
Our luck was also in with the egret. While we were sitting eating our sandwiches, my dad spotted a large white bird drifting over a distant reedbed in the distance, and within a few minutes we were watching this magnificent, pure white bird stretching its almost impossibly long neck out over a lagoon, looking for something to snap up in its big yellow bill.
And I did talk to the otter, if calling out “Ah, there you are!” in an excited voice counts…