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.

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Time to believe

First published by Mind.

After three years in the mire of depression, optimism is a new idea to me. It is both exciting and a new thing to worry about.

Can I remain optimistic and positive? Can I really leave depression behind? When I wobble can I keep my balance? Can I really come off my antidepressants this year or will it be another anticlimactic mission?

The answer to these questions can be found in an unlikely trio of places – a children’s Christmas film, a Dr Seuss book and in Alice in Wonderland. This answer is just one word long and is my motto for 2013:

BELIEVE.

One simple, memorable word to focus on. Believe good things are possible. Believe in the seemingly impossible. And, hardest but potentially most rewarding of all, believe in myself – believe in what I am capable of, what I can do, and believe that I can be well and happy.

So what’s all this about Dr Seuss, Alice in Wonderland and Christmas films, then?

Let’s start with Dr Seuss, and one of his many great books, Oh the Places You’ll Go. Reading this for the first time to my children a couple of weeks ago, I was convinced some of it was about recovering from depression. I particularly like these three passages:

 

And when you’re in a Slump,
you’re not in for much fun.
Un-slumping yourself
is not easily done.

 

But on you will go
though the weather be foul
On you will go
though your enemies prowl
On you will go
though the Hakken-Kraks howl
Onward up many
a frightening creek,
though your arms may get sore
and your sneakers may leak.

And will you succeed?

Yes! You will, indeed! (98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)

In Tim Burton’s film of Alice in Wonderland, which I watched recently (not with my children, who would have been well and truly freaked out by it), Alice also faces danger and has to fight a giant monster called the Jabberwocky – another thing that sounds like depression to me. She explains something that she learned from her inspirational father:

I try to believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Count them, Alice. One, there are drinks that make you shrink. Two, there are foods that make you grow. Three, animals can talk. Four, cats can disappear. Five, there is a place called Underland. Six, I can slay the Jabberwocky. 

I love this idea of believing in things that don’t seem possible but are. In the darkest moments of my depression I felt useless to everyone and thought I would never get better or look forward to anything. It seemed impossible to overcome it, yet that’s what I am doing now.

The children’s Christmas film I mentioned is the lovely, magical Polar Express, in which a boy who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus boards a train to the North Pole and meets the big man himself. When he returns home convinced forever, the conductor stamps his ticket with the word ‘BELIEVE’ and tells him:

The thing about trains… it doesn’t matter where they’re going. What matters is deciding to get on.

So I am ready to get on the train and to believe. It is a leap of faith. I haven’t been ready to take that leap until now, but here we go. Depression, you have had your fun. Now pack your bags, go away and never come back. I am changing the locks.

If you are going through what I have been through with this soul-destroying illness, never give up hoping. Keep dreaming. Keep looking for light in the darkness. Believe that you can and will get better.


2012: When depression lost its grip

As 2012 draws to a close I feel I have woken up from depression at last.

It took its time, but the sun – which had vanished behind dense, black fog at the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012 – has finally come out. The fog of desolation has lifted, the lights have come back on and the forecast is good for 2013 (see photos below).

It’s only now I’ve emerged from my zombie-like state that I realise how bad it was at times. During my three-year sleepwalk, I didn’t know what it felt like to enjoy anything, to look forward to anything, to relax or to have energy, to feel positive or optimistic.

My mood would turn so black that I would feel the rage boiling inside my head and I would just want to hit something. Once, I literally did bang my head against a wall. I learned a lesson from the ensuing headache – don’t do that again. Or I would feel so despondent, grey and lifeless every morning that I would sit wondering how I could get through the day, and would think how much easier it would be if the world would stop spinning and let me get off.

But thanks to counselling, a daily diary of positive things, the love, support and encouragement of my wife, family, friends and strangers on Twitter and who comment on this blog, greater self-awareness and a clearer perspective on life, and not least the passing of time, I am ready for the new year.

George Harrison’s lyrics for one of my favourite Beatles songs – Here Comes The Sun – sum up my past year very well, particularly in this verse:

 Little darling, I feel that ice is slowly melting

Little darling, it seems like years since it’s been clear
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It’s all right

At the start of 2012, I wrote a blog post saying I would not set any targets or make new year’s resolutions. I managed this with one exception. I had the chance to send a children’s story to a literary agent, and decided I wanted to write it before I started pantomime rehearsals in September.

By carefully managing my time and not worrying excessively about it, I did it. Although the story ultimately came to nothing (at least, not on this occasion), I had achieved something to be proud of.

My philosophy is the same for this year – no undue pressure, no unnecessary deadlines or targets. There are things I want to do and things I will do, including the York 10K run in the summer. Running is something I started doing before depression struck but have struggled to keep up while I’ve been ill. Feeling well enough to start again has been one of my most significant and glorious victories over the wretched, stubborn, spiteful illness that has brought me down.

As a final kick to depression’s vile posterior, I am going to use this run to raise money for a great cause that has given me invaluable support on the rocky road through dark times – the Blurt Foundation.

Perhaps by then I will have been able to stop taking Citalopram, the antidepressant that has been my constant companion since the doctor diagnosed depression in early 2010. I am looking forward to writing a blog about that moment.

It felt like I would never get to this point, but I have.

To anyone else who’s going through what I’ve been through, all I can say is never give up hoping that you will get better, however long it takes. Think of depression as a big, smug face, and do everything you can to wipe the smile off it.

Happy new year, folks.

Things are looking up.

Things are looking up.

The forecast is good for 2013.

The forecast is good for 2013.

Here comes the sun...

Here comes the sun…

I've been a shadow of my old self but it's time to wave goodbye to depression!

I’ve been a shadow of my old self but it’s time to wave goodbye to depression!


My recovery letter

Dear you,

I know you can’t concentrate for long at the moment and that your mind is elsewhere, so if you only remember one thing from this letter, make it this – the future is brighter than it looks.

How do I know this? Well, I have the luxury of writing this from nearly three years into your future. Trust me, it’s a better place. Physically, it’s the same place, so don’t worry, there’s no major upheaval. Mentally, though, it’s a different world.

You know how you just don’t look forward to anything at the moment? That will change.

You know those headaches you’re getting every day? They won’t last forever – nor will the blotchy skin or the other ailments.

You know those ferociously black moods and the bursts of anger and irritability that gnaw away at you? They will get fewer and farther between.

And you know that complete lack of energy or enthusiasm? Fear not, you will get your mojo back.

The insomnia will fade too.

So what advice can I give you? Quite a lot, when I think about it, but you have to be ready to take it so wait for a day when you are feeling more alert and receptive.

You’ve made the first step. You’ve realised you have a problem with stress and that you are completely frazzled. The doctor has told you that you have depression and has given you some medication.

So here is my first piece of advice. I know you want to get off that medication as quickly as possible, but don’t set any targets and don’t rush. I am still taking that medication and it doesn’t bother me now. OK, so no alcohol for three years doesn’t sound great, but you can’t hold your drink anyway, so it doesn’t make much difference. When you’re truly ready to come off the tablets, take your time and get it right.

Next get yourself some counselling. The doctor can refer you. The tablets can manage your mood to some extent, but on their own they only deal with symptoms. You need to get to grips with what is causing your depression so that you can get better. It can be gruelling, but it is worth it.

You should also read a book called Depressive Illness: The Curse Of The Strong, by Dr Tim Cantopher. He knows you can’t concentrate for long and explains depression in a way you can understand in short bursts.

Oh, and go to the Blurt Foundation website and ask for an email mentor. They’ll be there to support you and you can get your feelings off your chest without worrying that you will upset your nearest and dearest.

Two more things, then try and get some sleep, or maybe go out for some fresh air. Just try not to think too much, unless it’s about things you enjoy doing. You need to do more of those things.

So, my final pearls of wisdom.

The road to recovery is long and bumpy. It goes up and down like a rollercoaster. But remember this – you are getting better. It’s slow and it can feel like you are getting nowhere, but keep a diary of good things that happen, of positive feelings, of praise people give you, however small. On bad days, it will remind you that you are not a failure and that it’s worth existing. Learn from it and believe it.

Finally, don’t keep depression to yourself. It is not a dirty secret. The sooner you open up about it – maybe write a blog? – the sooner you’ll find the many other people who have gone through the same thing or who are going through it right now.

I won’t say ‘Chin up’. I certainly won’t say ‘Man up’. All I will say is look after yourself and be as patient as you can. You’re worth it.

I wrote this letter for The Recovery Letters – a great way of helping people with depression. Why not add your story too?


Light at the end of the tunnel

So, you’ve opened this blog post and found a rather poor photograph and half a page of solid, black nothingness. There is a point to this, and it’s about finding the light at the end of a long, black tunnel. Allow me to explain.

I was in my home city of York, stuck in traffic and feeling sorry for myself. I’d just had the latest of three disappointments in as many weeks and was wondering if I could pick myself up enough to be a cheery presence at the leaving do I was on my way to.

Pondering these rather gloomy, negative thoughts and staring straight ahead at the back of a car I’d been looking at for nearly half an hour, I suddenly realised I was beneath an arch – Micklegate Bar – and there was literally light at the end of the tunnel. The unexciting image you can see above is that light.

I scrambled for my phone in an attempt to take a photo before the traffic began to move. I must have lurched as I took the photo, and found I’d taken a blurred, wonky photo of a ‘keep left’ sign. I tried again, and the traffic lights obligingly stayed red, as you can see from the resulting image.

The view you’ve just been looking at inspired me. I know it doesn’t look very inspiring, but to me it was a revelation and it changed my mood completely.

It became symbolic of my past year. Last October, I crashed into a second major bout of depression, triggered by my reaction to what I saw at the time as a personal rejection. I could have taken these latest three disappointments in that same way, but instead I vowed to learn from them and keep going, because nothing will happen if I do nothing.

Yes, I’d been sad, disappointed – gutted even – but I was able to accept (probably thanks to the counselling I’ve had, the books that I’ve read and the wise words I’ve listened to) that it is perfectly normal, even for the most upbeat of people, to be disappointed sometimes, and not necessarily a sign of an impending re-run of my depression.

This acceptance and determination is something I simply could not do and did not have twelve months ago. It was a sign of real progress, and a reminder of how far I’ve come.

It showed me that however long and dark the tunnel may be, it’s worth keeping the faith that you will one day see the light at the end of it. A moment after I took the photo, the lights changed, I moved forward and turned a corner. More signs of progress yet to come?


Depression, hope and liberation

A week or two ago, I had an enlightening vision. I think I was awake at the time, so it wasn’t a dream, although I suppose you could call it a daydream. Whatever it was, I can recall every moment of it with great clarity. Here’s what happened.

The weather was fine and I was standing alone in a local organic nursery, where there is a pond. I was standing near the pond, but with my back to it, facing back the way I must have walked to get there, where there are vegetables growing on either side of the path.

With no sort of build-up or warning, a thick, black-and-purple mist was sucked out from my middle – somewhere around my belly button – and cast to the ground. I knew immediately that this evil-looking fog was my depression. It had been inside me, controlling me, like some kind of possession, but now it was out – completely out.

As it hit the floor, it became something round and solid, with legs, a bit like a podgy spider, and it scuttled away into the vegetable patches. It kept peeking out at me and cautiously coming nearer, but if I stamped my foot it would scuttle away again. It was still out there, but the most important thing was that it wasn’t inside me, dictating my thoughts and moods. Furthermore, it could be repelled if I kept my wits about me.

I’ve been feeling much better over the past two or three months – so much so that I was finally able to reduce my dose of antidepressants last week and go back to the level of medication I was on before my second big bout of depression kicked off last October. I also made a triumphant exit from my counselling. This funny little vision seems like confirmation that I am indeed heading in the right direction.

I love the idea that depression is physically OUT of my body. It feels that way. For nearly three years, it has ruled the roost and called the shots, but now I’m rid of that nagging feeling of constant irriation and agitation. My memory is noticeably clearer, my thinking is sharper, and the feeling that my brain was enshrouded in a dark fog has gone. After the vision/daydream had passed, I realised that yes, that was exactly what my depression has felt like – an evil fog, not surrounding me, but possessing me.

I wrote a few weeks ago about my depression being like a pirate who’d hijacked my boat, and I invited him to walk the plank. This feels like a similar idea. Depression is out there and may try to get back in, but armed with what I’ve learned while I’ve had this vile, miserable illness, I am better equipped to keep it at bay, whether it’s a persistent pirate or a scuttling spider. It’s definitely better out than in.

In my blog posts about depression, I’ve often referred to this dark force as ‘Paul Brookes’ – a shadowy puppeteer manipulating my mind to do his foul bidding. Now I’ve imagined this wicked mist, I don’t feel it deserves a name. It is a toxic fog, not a person with a face and a personality. I’ve certainly heard it speaking far too often for my liking, as it slyly whispers “you’re not good enough” and encourages me to get angry, take everything personally and re-run imaginary arguments and worse-case scenarios in my mind when I am trying to sleep.

The voice still chirps up from time to time, but it’s easier to silence. The negative thoughts pop up now and again, but they can more readily be banished. This is my resurgence and Brookes’s demise. Still accompanied by my trusty sidekick, Citalopram, I am stepping out into the Promised Land Beyond Depression, and I like it.

Will every day be perfect? Well no, of course it won’t, but I can accept that now – and I know that there will be plenty of good times ahead. Brookes is history. Brook is the future.