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.
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.
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.
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’ve learned a lot through my hideous experience of depression and my long, slow, bumpy recovery and, although I forget a lot of this new-found wisdom most of the time, I’m determined not to let it go to waste.
Putting this learning into action is my best chance of fending off any future attacks from my nemesis and staying well.
So, here are the most important things I’ve learned. They might seem obvious, but these are all things I couldn’t do when I started counselling in 2010.
I’m bound to have forgotten something vital, but, in line with point number 2, I won’t beat myself up about it.
1. Learn to accept ‘good enough’. You can’t do everything to the absolute best of your ability the whole time, Mr Perfectionist, and you can’t please everyone all the time. Most situations are not a case of all or nothing. Save your best for when you really need it. Imagine you’re a car – too many extra miles and you’ll find yourself in the garage.
2. Give yourself a break. Stop criticising yourself and putting yourself down. Stop setting yourself unnecessary targets and challenges. Work out what your strengths and qualities are, and remember them. Ask someone else if you don’t know what they are. I did. Write them down if that helps.
3. Don’t worry about what other people think. More often than not, you have no idea what people are actually thinking, and are probably jumping to the wrong conclusion, so you’ll end up taking everything personally. And don’t worry what people think of you. Define yourself on your own terms. Only you have the right to decide who you are and what you do with your life.
4. If something has happened to irritate, infuriate or upset you and it is festering in your mind, you either have to do something about it or accept it and let it go. Dwelling on it will do you nothing but harm. Nelson Mandela put it better than me:
Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.
5. Don’t think when tired. Nobody is at their best when they’re tired. Tiredness really does affect your state of mind. If I start thinking when I’m tired, I end up in imaginary arguments, over-thinking everything and feeding paranoia. Distract yourself with some music or whatever works for you.
6. Find time to do something you enjoy. Do it because you love it. Not everything you do has to achieve something, so stop the striving – enjoying something is a result in itself. Everyone needs to relax. Nobody is invincible.
7. Savour the moment. Recognise when you feel good. Notice when you are enjoying something. Write it down – maybe in a diary, like the one I started keeping during my depression and still write in. Take a photo. Remember it. It’s your evidence against the voice that says everything is miserable and hopeless.
8. Live in the present. Don’t let the past rule your life now, and don’t worry about the future so much that it spoils today. Take some advice from Oogway, the wise tortoise in Kung Fu Panda:
You are too concerned with what was and what will be. There is a saying: Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.
9. It’s not weak to ask for help. Talking to someone about how you’re feeling can change – or even save – your life. Don’t try and keep it in through some misguided sense that you are tough, strong and can handle anything and everything. That’s not tough or strong – it’s daft.
10. Don’t stop believing. When you’re in a dark place, believe the light will return. Keep hoping. Keep the faith. Believe things can improve and you can get better. You just don’t know what’s coming next, so don’t write off yourself or your future.