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.
Today, depression has made a dream come true. Sounds unlikely, I know – but at least something good has come of it.
If I hadn’t had depression, I wouldn’t have drawn a series of doodles about it last September for the Blurt Foundation. And if I hadn’t drawn those doodles, my friend Gary wouldn’t have seen them and suggested putting them on T-shirts.
I’ve just been onto Gary’s website, Trustovi, and ordered a T-shirt with my own design on it. Ever since I reached an age when I wanted to choose what to wear, I’ve loved T-shirts. I used to draw T-shirt designs on computer paper or in exercise books at home. I’ve doodled for as long as I can remember. So having T-shirts to buy with my own doodles on is pretty much a dream come true.
I’m calling these designs Dippydoodles, and the T-shirts are available to buy right now. There are four designs, all intended to help raise awareness and understanding of depression in a positive way. All the profits from sales of the T-shirts will be donated to Blurt to continue their great work supporting people with depression and fighting the stigma that goes with it.
The doodles all feature a bald chap in an orange T-shirt. I don’t have any orange T-shirts, but the hairstyle is definitely mine.
Two of the designs are from the set I drew for Blurt.
‘Look after yourself. You’re important.’ is a reminder to people like me that we need to be kind to ourselves and not to be so self-critical. We’re happy to praise other people and show them kindness but it’s such a struggle sometimes to do the same for ourselves.
‘Anyone seen my confidence?’ shows those times when our confidence hits rock bottom. I’ve definitely experienced this during episodes of depression. It completely crushed my self-esteem and building it back up is a long work in progress.
The other two designs are new ones, based on other themes I’ve explored in my blog.
In ‘Former perfectionist’, you’ll notice that ‘perfectionist’ is spelt incorrectly and that the bald chap looks pretty vexed about it. I’m a former perfectionist myself, and it’s a hard habit to break, but it can be pretty punishing to live with. I would still recoil in horror at the thought of spelling a word incorrectly.
‘Man up? Er, no.” is a polite version of what I feel like saying in response to anyone using the phrase ‘man up’ in connection to depression. It’s a stupid and destructive phrase, as I wrote in this Blurt blog.
I’ll leave you with a couple of requests:
- Please buy a T-shirt. You’ll look splendid and you’ll be supporting an important cause. The website’s great and really quick and easy to use. Oh, and delivery is free in the UK, so you won’t suddenly find yourself paying more at the checkout.
- Share a photo of yourself wearing your beautiful new T-shirt, using #dippydoodles
I’ll post a photo of me wearing mine very soon…
Dippyman has been rather neglected this year, and continues to stand at a crossroads as it creaks into its sixth year.
It’s partly been quiet on this blog because I’ve been working really hard this year and there hasn’t been much space left in my brain.
The force awakens
It’s also been quiet because – and I’ve kept this quiet up until now – I’ve been under attack from depression again for the last few months. It’s come in waves, with star turns from anxiety, paranoia, insomnia, forgetfulness, fear and random anger. I’ve been fine some days, and far from fine on others. It’s a reminder that, when recovering from depression, the force does awaken from time to time, and I have to be on my guard and look after myself.
I’ve taken my own advice at times. I’ve stuck with my diary of positive things, and made sure I plan things to look forward to – like my trip out to sea (pictures below), looking for seabirds, at the start of this month. I find the sea calming, and to be out there for nearly three hours was a great escape. Not only that, I saw two firsts – a fleeting view of a Black Tern (one of the bogey birds that’s eluded me for years) and a Sooty Shearwater, which obligingly whizzed round the boat in a circle so everyone could see it.
I’ve been a poster boy for functioning depressives.
At other times, I’ve forgotten everything I’ve ever learned about coping with depression, and have done the whole ‘soldiering on’ thing, not really telling anyone, trying to prove myself, and generally being stubborn. And – just to take my own advice for a moment and to be kind to myself – I’ve done a pretty good job of it. I’ve taken on a lot and achieved a lot. I’ve been a poster boy for functioning depressives.
Another thing I’ve been doing is writing some blog posts for the Blurt Foundation, an organisation I admire enormously. My latest one was a chance for me to do something different, using my own doodles to show what you don’t see about depression.
I also keep chipping away at my children’s story, Splot, which must be on its sixth draft by now, in the hope that one day I’ll be happy enough with it to try sending it to an agent or publisher.
And, to be honest, I’ve struggled a bit with writer’s block. I’ve started and abandoned three or four posts, which I simply couldn’t get inspired by and couldn’t be bothered to finish. Each seemed OK when the idea had come to me, but had become deeply tedious by the time I sat down to write it. Heck, if I can’t be bothered to read my own writing, I don’t see why anyone else would want to.
However, bits of each of those abandoned posts have somehow ended up in this one – further proof that, if you want to be a writer, you just need to start writing. My plan tonight was, having abandoned yet another post, just to share some photos of the Yorkshire coast, but somehow the words trickled out in the end.
Recovery and persistence
That’s how it goes with recovery too, sometimes. It’s not all about big eureka moments, where you leap up and say ‘Ta-daaaaa, I feel amazing!’ Often, recovery is about sticking with it and chipping away, even when it seems hopeless and never-ending. It’s about persisting in a rather unexciting, unremarkable way, until eventually the light grows brighter and you realise you’re in a better place.
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.
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?
It’s a few years now since depression made an unwelcome appearance in my life. Recovery is a slow and bumpy process, and I always have to be on my guard against my old enemy. To stay well, I need to look after myself, and I’ve gradually built up a list of things I do to manage my mental health.
This World Mental Health Day (10 October) focuses on those small things that can help you, or help you to support someone else. By sharing the things that work for us, we can all help each other. Here’s what works for me. Let me know what helps you.
Writing a diary
I quite often find ‘positive thinking’ a bit grating but one thing I’ve done consistently since I had counselling is to keep a daily diary of positive things. It could be something kind someone has said, or something I’ve enjoyed doing. It works in two ways – it makes me recall the good parts of every day, and, in difficult times, it’s helpful to read back as a reminder that good things do happen on a regular basis.
It’s very important to do something you enjoy as often as possible. For me, that means going birdwatching. I try to arrange fairly regular days when I can take a break from my daily routine and go somewhere to get immersed in birdwatching, whether it’s looking for a particular bird or generally enjoying the distraction of being somewhere different and seeing what’s there.
When I was off work with depression in 2011, I made myself go out for a short walk every day, just to get out of the house. Walking is a healthy combination of fresh air, a change of scene, daylight, distraction and exercise. I still walk as much and as often as I can.
It’s easy to get lost in your thoughts and pay no attention to what’s happening around you. I’ve found that looking up at the sky is a rewarding alternative. It somehow helps to give me a little perspective. I like to take pictures of the sky and tree tops on my mobile phone when I’m out for a walk.
I often use my lunch break to get a bit of ‘me time’. My mornings are a rush to get the kids ready for school, and my evenings often involve being somewhere – or the kids being somewhere – by a particular time. The middle of the day is a perfect time to get out for a walk or just sit somewhere quiet for a while.
I did some Mind Calm classes this summer and – when I remember to practise – find it helpful in stopping my mind racing and flitting about. Mindfulness is widely talked about as a way of coping with depression, and this is the version I’ve found most helpful so far.
I have a rocky relationship with running. I’ve had some great highs and off-putting lows with it, and really have to force myself to do it, but once I get going I quite enjoy it. I’ve just started going running again after a 14-month break, because I was feeling unfit and could feel myself over-thinking things and getting a bit agitated. Running helps me with both those things.
I find it’s easier to support other people than to look after myself, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. All of the things in my list are a kind of self-care. It’s also worth trying a regular BuddyBox, either for yourself or someone else. BuddyBox is a new initiative from my friends at the Blurt Foundation. Each month, they fill a box with items to help, comfort or inspire anyone who needs a boost.