Fighting fear and darkness with Yoda

If you’ve had depression, it’s hard to shake the nagging, niggling feeling that it might come back. Every bad mood, every negative thought, feels like it could be a way for this evil force to return. To help me fight the fear I’ve recruited a very wise consultant – Yoda (see my photo below).

Yoda is a tiny green chap with funny ears. He’s more than 900 years old and lives in a swamp. But his strange and underwhelming appearance is deceptive – he’s extremely powerful, with incredible knowledge and power.

OK, I know, he’s just a character from the Star Wars movies, but when it comes to understanding fear and the Dark Side of the Force (a perfect metaphor for depression) he’s well worth listening to.

Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering.

He is absolutely right. The fear of depression at stressful times is the first step down a path to its return. That fear can make you tense and angry. And anger is a very destructive force that leads to suffering for you and others. Even the name of the film this quote comes from – The Phantom Menace – seems to describe depression and its stealthy, shadowy presence.

He also knows what it feels like when depression does strike.

Hmmm. The Dark Side clouds everything. Impossible to see, the future is.

Yes, Yoda. You’re right again. Depression possesses your thoughts, switches off your memory and clarity of thought, and makes you doubt and fear everything. I certainly don’t want to go back to that. Ever.

Yoda clearly knows his stuff, so I am going to listen to him.

Do, or do not. There is no try.

OK, Yoda, I’m with you.

Patience you must have.

You’re right again. It’s difficult though, isn’t it?

You must unlearn what you have learned.

True. I learned in my counselling to unlearn what I’d learned – to unravel the way I’d come to think of myself and my life and start again.

Always pass on what you have learned.

Yep, that’s what I’m doing. I hope it helps.

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The dog, the wasp and the pirate: depression’s many faces

First published by Black Dog Tribe

I’ve likened my depression to lots of different things since I first started writing about it.

Each of these comparisons is my way of trying to understand what it is I’ve been up against. We all have our own ways of describing our depression, whether it’s a black dog that, well, dogs our lives, or a black cloud that hovers above us.

I often use a Star Wars analogy to describe what depression has been like for me. Stress came wading into my life, like Darth Vader, unleashing the dark side of the Force on my battered brain, and paving the way for the sinister Emperor – a cloaked figure, with his gnarled face and evil eyes partially hidden behind his hood – to sneak up and take over. This darkness is definitely a characteristic of depression, both in the way it slinks around in the darkness like a slippery serpent and in the way it blackens our moods and enshrouds our lives.

Another way I’ve thought of it is like a pirate who hijacks our boat when the seas get rough. It’s a cruel twist to the story of our life’s voyage – an unwelcome, domineering passenger taking charge at a time when it’s tough enough to navigate the stormy waters.

Or is it like a wasp at a picnic? A persistent menace that won’t leave you alone, when all you want to do is enjoy a bun or two, and has a nasty sting in its tail.

There is one face of depression that I always return to, though. I see it as my misspelt alter-ego, Paul Brookes. His face is pale, because he thrives in the darkest places. He’s thin, because although he mercilessly gorges himself on a diet of my insecurities and worries, he’s permanently on the move, burning off those ill-gotten calories. And he delights in my torment.

Brookes has been part of my life for two-and-a-half years. At the moment, it feels like his grip might be slipping and his powers could be weakening. It’s about time, really. I’ve bombarded him with antidepressants, played his mind games through two rounds of counselling and done as many other things as possible to see him off. He has been a difficult adversary to overcome. Like the black dog, he has hounded me. Like the dark cloud, he has hung around me, blocking out the sun. Like Vader and the Emperor, he has ruled my galaxy with a reign of terror. Like the pirate, he’s run my ship. And like the wasp at the picnic, he has pestered me relentlessly.

Here’s the thing, though. The less I see Brookes as an enemy to be fought, and the more I learn from my experiences of living with him, the less power he exerts over me. In fact, I’ve pretty much disowned him now.

A black dog can be trained. Dark clouds blow away eventually. The Emperor was killed by his own apprentice, and the pirate can be made to walk the plank. As for the wasp, if you flap at it too much, it will sting you. Maybe it’s better to tuck into that bun and ignore the wasp. Although whacking it with a rolled-up newspaper would be REALLY satisfying…

A match for the Dark Side

There is a scene towards the end of Return of the Jedi where the evil Emperor stands over a stricken Luke Skywalker and ferociously zaps him with lightning from his finger tips.

“Your feeble skills are no match for the power of the Dark Side,” he goads Skywalker, as our young hero writhes around on the floor in agony.

But the vicious villain is wrong. He is ultimately overthrown, and all because of Luke’s faith that there is still some good hidden away inside his father, Darth Vader – one of the ultimate movie baddies.

So where am I going with all this?

Well, last September I wrote about my depression for the first time, using a Star Wars analogy with Vader as ‘Stress’ and the Emperor as ‘Depression’. Since that first adventure, I’ve experienced the pitfalls of The Empire Strikes Back, the second part of the original Star Wars trilogy. When I say I’ve experienced it, I don’t mean I’ve sat down and watched it with a giant, over-priced bucket of popcorn. No, nothing fun like that. I’ve lived through the resurgence and revenge of an evil power – the one I call Paul Brookes. He is my alter-ego, who corrupts my thoughts and feelings with his equivalent of the Dark Side of the Force.

Brookes appeared to have taken a deadly blow in the first episode of my depression, but he was gathering strength, somewhere just out of view. He was waiting for my stress levels to build again, and looking for the right time to move in for the kill. And, like Vader in The Empire Strikes Back, he resurfaced and wreaked havoc. OK, so I wasn’t frozen in carbonite like Han Solo, and I didn’t have my arm sliced off like Luke Skywalker, but I did take a brutal beating from my nemesis.

Brookes’ powers had grown. Just as the Empire ruled the galaxy, Brookes ruled my brain. Just as the Empire had been building a second Death Star (a moon-sized space station with enough fire power to blow up whole planets with one blast), Brookes had been working on demolishing my rebellion with his own destructive devices – crushing my self-esteem, convincing me to take everything personally, kicking me when I was down and smashing the life out of me.

Brookes isn’t dead – yet. His Empire has not been defeated – yet. His Death Star has not been destroyed – yet. But note the word ‘yet’. Because Brookes has not killed off my hope that I will get better. He has not finished off my faith that good times will return. He has underestimated my tenacity – my determination to hang on, no matter what wounds he has inflicted on my battered body and mind. He has failed to recognise the threat that the powers of good pose to his existence.

Just as Luke Skywalker had to face up to his destiny and confront the forces of evil to complete his training, I now stand with a mission ahead of me. I have an Empire to overthrow, a galaxy to reclaim, and a better life to lead. Brookes has made me small, weak and feeble – pathetic opposition to his sneering arrogance and despicable disregard for my wellbeing. But he has not taken away my terrier-like persistence. Not permanently. I am playing Brookes at his own game. He hibernated until the time was right for him. Now I’m emerging from my own slumbers to take him on in a climactic battle.

Do not underestimate the power of the bright side of the Force, Brookes. I’m back. And this time it’s personal.

Can brains explode?

My brain feels full, like it is going to burst. It is like an overflowing bucket, under seige from hundreds of cackling goblins pouring more water into it – or a super volcano lurking ominously below the surface, threatening to burst at any moment.

So I found myself wondering if brains can actually explode. If you keep pouring stuff into your brain, can it really accommodate it or will it just pop? Well, realistically, what is most likely to happen when your head is full and showing signs of leakage is that you will get stressed out, anxious, depressed, and find it impossible to sleep. In fact, insomnia is the equivalent of the leaking water from my bucket brain – what won’t sink in during the day seeps out at night.

But this is all a bit serious isn’t it? What you want to know is whether brains can explode. Alarmingly, it seems they can. Wikipedia says:

Exploding head syndrome is a parasomnia condition that causes the sufferer occasionally to experience a tremendously loud noise as originating from within his or her own head, usually described as the sound of an explosion, roar, gunshot, loud voices or screams, a ringing noise, or the sound of electrical arcing (buzzing).

Wow, that sounds truly disturbing. My own brain, while struggling to contain its wriggling, hyperactive contents, at least stops short of blasting me senseless with unexpected loud noises. 

Moving on from explosions, here is my second big question: do brains have a mind of their own?

Sounds like a riddle, but here’s why I ask – my brain does things I don’t want it to do. It is both my greatest attribute and my worst enemy. A day and night with my brain is like going on a wild ride on a magic bus driven by a chimpanzee. You just never know where you will end up. It could be somewhere sublime or hilarious, or dark and terrifying. It could be an alpine meadow with blue skies and singing larks, or it could be a freezing cave, swarming with unseen terrors.

My brain thinks of things that other people don’t think of. It thinks of things I’m not even sure I’ve thought of myself. And while this can be an exciting blessing when it’s on good form, it’s bad news when its evil twin comes to town. Let’s call this evil twin Paul Brookes – the twisted, misspelt alter-ego of the real me, Paul Brook.

Paul Brookes takes the vivid imagination of his almost-namesake and crafts big, fat lumps of worry from it. He finds a hint of self-doubt and gleefully magnifies it. He unearths unhelpful memories and plays them on repeat. Nasty Paul Brookes.

Brookes is a hungry boy. He always wants feeding. He is like the biggest bird with the most wide-open beak in the nest, guzzling twice his share of caterpillars while his sibling shivers behind him, squawking feebly.

But – and forgive me for going back to my Star Wars analogies – Brookes’s powers are weakening. A new hope, the mentally malnourished Brook, is slowly rising from the shadows. His time will come. Before then, there are mighty battles to be fought.

If there’s going to be an explosion, I fully intend Brookes to be first in the firing line. Especially as, reading this back, he has made me sound like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings books.

Stress, depression and Star Wars

When I was a boy, I wanted to be Luke Skywalker from Star Wars. And, as I have found out in the past week, that urge hasn’t quite gone away.

I’ve been rehearsing for a panto version of the Three Musketeers, involving proper sword fights, and my inner child has been prompting me to make lightsaber noises every time I pick up my sword.

Unfortunately for me, this isn’t the only fighting I’ve been doing. Like the hero from Star Wars, I have been fighting dark and very personal forces. No Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine for me, though. Instead, I have been under attack from their sinister real-life counterparts, stress and depression, for the last two years.

Like Darth Vader in the first Star Wars film, stress came wading in first. I’d been working hard, taking on too much and putting too much pressure on myself. There was a lot going on away from work too, not least adjusting to life as a worn-out parent with two young children, and my return to the village pantomime after two years away.

So stress bashed away at me like a battering ram for several months and, almost without me noticing at first, the shadowy figure of depression crept in, whispering morale-crushing phrases like ‘You’re not good enough’ and gnawing away at my self-esteem like some kind of rabid, saber-toothed phantom menace.

It took three months of daily headaches and a catalogue of persistent, pesky little illnesses and ailments to make me realise that something wasn’t right. I hadn’t looked forward to anything for  some time, and my worries were squeezing the joy out of my life. I had no physical or mental energy. In Star Wars terms, this was perhaps my equivalent moment to when Luke realises Darth Vader is his father. The Dark Side of the Force was calling from inside my own head, but I wasn’t really that keen to become its slave, so I went to see my doctor, who has since become the Obi Wan Kenobi of my depression experience, giving me the advice (and medication) I need.

Depression wasn’t ready to give up that easily, though. The tablets alone weren’t putting it in its rightful place. When a kind therapist friend generously gave her time to help me, I realised counselling could be a powerful ally, so my doctor referred me to a counsellor – counsellor Yoda, if you like. Begun this fightback had.

The counselling tackled the negative beliefs I held about myself and all manner of other things that helped to start getting my mind into better shape. My Jedi training was making me a useful warrior against the Dark Side.

My Rebel Alliance – my wife, friends and colleagues, counsellor and doctor, church and faith – has given me the best possible chance of taking on the Dark Side and winning. It keeps attempting to strike back, and it will be a while before I can wave goodbye to my antidepressants and enjoy my first beer since April 2010, but the Force is strong in this one.

The Dark Side’s powers are weakening. Soon, I will be the master.