On This Day

Can you remember what you were doing on this day last year? Or this day 5 years ago? If I had been writing this at the end of the last decade, then the chances are that you would reply in the negative. However, with the emergence of Facebook, we are constantly reminded about our past lives. The On This Day feature means you get regular reminders of what you were doing at a particular moment in the last 10 years or so. For most people this is inevitably a cause for nostalgia, or amusement, and a chance to reconnect with friends or family that you may not have seen for a while. However for me, it has almost universal negative connotations. Each snapshot and memory poses me a plethora of questions. How was I feeling at the time? Where did things go wrong from there? What could I have done differently in my life from that moment in time? Wouldn’t it be great to go back to that moment and have a chance to live my life again? Was I happy in that moment, or was the smile a façade, to mask the inner turmoil and anxiety I was feeling?

The depressive mind, in my experience, has a poor filter system. It filters only negative thoughts or connotations, disregarding or contorting the positives. I’m quite a nostalgic person, although the flights of fancy I may go through into my past are tinged with melancholy and sadness, especially the older I get. A memory might force itself into my mind, say that of a summer’s day, walking down a country path with my dad, eating an ice cream, and looking forward to all of the excitement that the school holidays would bring. This idyllic memory is punctured by a sadness, and a yearning to go back to that time, combined with a frustration and regret for how things have turned out since. These thoughts can trouble me for an indefinite duration, until I feel so despondent I have to try and actively force them from my mind.

The danger of the above is that you are constantly living in the past, rather than the here and now. If I don’t try to live in the moment, then ultimately the James 20 years down the line will not not be able to conjure up any memories from 2016 to be nostalgic about. For the last week I have been desperately trying to be my old self, and I feel I have done what I do best and separate the outside appearance from the inside. Don’t get my wrong, I have had some genuinely happy moments this week, and spending all of my working day with friends is a privilege. However, the energy needed to make sure my outer-self is firing on all cylinders takes an inordinate amount of mental and physical energy out of me, to the extent that when I come away from the hustle and bustle, and can let my guard down, I feel a strong sense of emptiness, detachment and loneliness. When I was younger I was afraid of clowns (and I guess if you put one in front of me now I still would be!). Clowns have painted on smiles, and an outward appearance of happiness, fun and boundless energy. But the painted on smile is a mask, and only once they have taken this off is their true self revealed. Maybe  I wasn’t afraid of clowns, but instead was afraid of seeing too much of myself within them.

As I write this I feel back to square one again. The noise has stopped, the people have gone, the lights have been turned out, and the empty feeling is seeping in at the pores. It’s a constant roller coaster, and the worst part is that when the coaster speeds upwards to its highest point, you know that just over the top of that loop is the plummet downwards. You can’t escape the inevitable fall, but I just wish for once that I could reach the top and remain there for a while and observe the view from up high.

I wanted to end with some music, because this medium has the ability to evoke an diverse range of emotions and feelings; from joy, hope and happiness, to despair, sadness and grief. Music is quite possibly the greatest achievement that human kind has been responsible for. This song by Passenger is beautifully poignant. It is a comment on how we live our lives, and how we miss so many opportunities and experiences.  It is a song about embracing the moment. Passenger sings:

 
We should run through the forest
We should swim in the streams
We should laugh, we should cry,
We should love, we should dream

And at the end of the day, who can argue with him?

 

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Holding The Black Dog At Bay

I’m very conscious that most, if not all, of my blog posts have been scribed when I have been feeling down or hopeless. One of the many facets of the illness is that you focus on the negatives, and ignore any positives, and therefore I guess its inevitable that the ratio of optimistic versus pessimistic blog posts is so one sided. Someone pointed out to me the other day that it would be useful to note down what happens when I’m feeling more positive and upbeat, as this will be a valuable record to look back on when I’m feeling particularly low. What was happening on that day which caused me to feel more positive? Why was I not feeling as discouraged as usual? Can I use any of my findings and put them into action when I’m feeling especially depressed or anxious?

I’m not entirely sure of the reasons for my more upbeat state of mind in the last day or two, but I can hazard a guess at a number of factors:

(1) My bronchitis, which has been dragging my down for the last few weeks, has finally started to subside. I’ve felt dreadful for the duration of the illness, as its been difficult to breathe, and the cough has been intensely painful. As with getting over any illness, you can’t help but feel positive that you have seen the back of it.

(2) The aforementioned bronchitis has ensured that I have been unable to visit the gym at all for the last few weeks, and therefore I’ve been feeling decidedly inactive and restless. Today I was able to return, and had an intensive workout, which made me feel less guilty about the lack of exercise recently, and also precipitated the inevitable good vibes that come from the release of endorphins.

(3) Last night I met some good friends who I haven’t seen in a long time. It was a lovely evening, and we laughed, joked and reminisced about past times. It reinforced to me the importance of friends, and interacting with other people. Whilst the illness often negates this basic human characteristic, it proves that if it can be achieved, then the results are immensely positive, and allows you to fight back at the illness. Depression doesn’t want to you to have any semblance of happiness, and consequently if you do have a moment of contentment or hopefulness, you are in a sense defeating it, albeit until the next time it strikes.

(4) I’ve felt more of myself at work in the last few days, which is inevitable as a consequence of the previous points mentioned. Everyone I work with I consider friends, as well as colleagues, and hence when I’m feeling well in myself, and have managed to seek out some optimistic state of mind, it is a genuinely pleasurable environment to spend my time in. It helps greatly that everyone in my team knows about my illness, and thus there is no awkwardness or shying away from the realities of it.

(5) I’ve now got a few days off, and am looking forward to participating in some of the activities that I enjoy, but which depression effectively strips any pleasure from. Simple things like reading, going to the cinema, working out, going for a walk in the park. Points 1-4 in this list certainly contribute to being able to do this, as well as other factors that I probably don’t even recognise. Normally when the weekend swings around there is initially the inevitable ‘Friday Feeling’ that everyone experiences, but as soon as Saturday morning raises its head, the usual feelings of lethargy, hopelessness, lonliness and anxiety come rushing through the door. It’s nice therefore to actually be able to look forward to a few days rest, and hopefully a time to recharge the batteries, as the last few weeks have been physically and emotionally draining.

This is my no means an exhaustive list, but it will hopefully give me something to reflect upon when the inevitable slide downwards happens. Because it will. It may be in a few weeks time, or a few days time, or even in a few hours time. There is no stopping it. The doors have been boarded up for now, and the shutters on the windows pulled down. But depression is persistent, strong, and stubborn. The only thing that you can do is try and enjoy the moments when its at arms bay, and quite possibly the more times that this is achieved, the more tired and bored the ‘Black Dog’ will become. Maybe one day it will leave forever, its tail between its legs. But for now if I can at least hold it at bay for a few days, then that surely is a positive. I’ll take that any day of the week.

Tuesday Thoughts

I have no specific topic of focus is this blog, I think because I’m feeling very unmotivated at the moment, and also a lack of sleep/illness isn’t helping, and am therefore finding it difficult to focus my mind, and concentrate enough to write something significant. You know when it’s a windy day and you see a plastic bag blowing along the road, catching on things and bumping into people? That’s how I feel like. Being swept along, unable to have any control over the direction, and rising and falling on an almost hourly basis. The main emotions over the last few days are that of hopelessness, frustration, lack of motivation, and a horrible feeling of emptiness and emotional impotence. It’s a feeling of there being nothing to look forward to, and an impossibility of gaining any pleasure from every day activities. Weekends/weekdays blend into one, and each day seems the same, resulting in a sensation of merely existing, not living. It’s a very hard emotion to describe, and put into words, and therefore I find it particularly difficult to talk to people about.

In the last few days one thing I have achieved is to retry meditation, after having briefly attempted it in the past, with varying degrees of success. I’m using the app Headspace, which has had a lot of positive reviews, and seems to be the leading meditation tool at the moment. I’m currently on day six of the Take 10 course which is a ten day introduction to meditation. Each meditation is 10 minutes long,  with the aim being to create better self awareness and focus, as well as reducing the stress and worries that are ever present. I’m finding that whilst engaging in them, the meditations are fairly relaxing, but the effects don’t last much beyond the 10 minutes. I will persevere, and once I have completed the Take 10 course, I will move onto the more advanced meditations, and see what effect, if any, they have on me. Unfortunately I’m naturally sceptical about this type of venture, but will aim to keep an open mind, as I am desperate for anything that may help me.

Finally, I saw this article on the BBC website. It makes my heart sink to hear that funding has decreased for mental health. I just want to stand on the roof tops and shout out that “this isn’t good enough!” It’s not just the amount of support provided by the NHS, but also the quality and speed of it. For example, I waited about 7 months for the weekly psychotherapy sessions that I attend, from my initial assessment until the course commenced. This is not acceptable, and I strongly believe that mental health needs to be prioritised much more than it is. After all, people’s lives literally depend on it, as its estimated that 90% of all people that commit suicide have a mental illness. How therefore, can a 7 month wait to get help, or a reduction in funding to the NHS, be acceptable when these statistics offer a stark reality of the illness. My aim going forward through this blog, and hopefully some ventures that this blog may lead to (watch this space), is to spread the word as far and wide as I possibly can. The more people that can have their say the better, as its the only way to gain an understanding, and to formulate a way in which we can be proactive going forward. I want to finish with these words from Joanne, who was commenting on my ‘What Lasts Forever, But Is Running Out Every Second?’ blog from 3rd February. Its this kind of honest and positive thinking that is the only way people are going to understand mental health, and try and beat it:

“Believe. You are in charge of the way you feel. It is not in charge of you. Change the way you think. Yesterday you were a victim of depression. Today you are a victim of depression. Tomorrow you will be a survivor of depression. Never look towards the future or look back at the past. Concentrate on the here and now. You will beat this, you will get better. Do one thing that is positive each day that you wouldn’t normally do,even if it scares you. Push yourself to do the things you would normally quit at. Never beat yourself up about the past, it’s over. Don’t worry for the future, it hasn’t happened yet. You will make the future all that you want it to be. Learn to laugh at life, laugh at yourself, laugh at life and how ridiculous things are. You are a survivor of this illness. Make new friends, chat to anyone, learn to smile at yourself. Courage isn’t always a loud roar. It can be a small voice at the end of the day that says,”I will try again tomorrow”. To discover the new ocean you are looking for you must have the courage to drift away from the shore. You have been blighted by this for 10 years and you have had the courage to keep going regardless…you have the courage to drift away from the shore. I was sectioned, forcibly given medication,alone, afraid and in that deepest darkest tunnel you know about. I was dragged off by the police in front of colleagues, made a fool of really. Nobody wanted to know me apart from my family. I lived rough on the sreets, all because of this damn illness. I never thought I would escape it. I did. I have a lovely house, a husband, children and I have been off medication and happy for 10 years. I will never go back, I will never be ill again. You will be like me, I believe you can do it. I know you can do it. Know you can do it too.”

Tired of Being Tired

3am, 4am, 5am…these are times of the day I have no desire to gain knowledge of, but which are in fact becoming increasingly familiar to me, as I lie staring at the ceiling, hearing the ‘tick tock’ of the clock and watching the shadows of the trees creeping across the walls. Depression and anxiety have always gone hand in hand with tiredness, as the stress on the brain is exhausting, plus the illness can lead to bouts of insomnia, and the little sleep that is achieved is usually unrefreshing.

As this article from the National Sleep Foundation says (link): “Depressed individuals may suffer from a range of insomnia symptoms, including difficulty falling asleep (sleep onset insomnia), difficulty staying asleep (sleep maintenance insomnia), unrefreshing sleep, and daytime sleepiness”. I tend to be able to get to sleep with few problems, but end up waking in the early hours, unable to sink back into oblivion, and instead watching the hours come and go, while ruminating on thoughts and anxieties in my mind. This leads to a constant feeling of mental and physical exhaustion, and an appearance reminiscent of a zombie that would be at home in a horror movie.

It’s a vicious cycle; the anxieties and worries can precipitate the insomnia, which in turn generates a feeling of exhaustion, which then leads to more anxiety and low mood. As the article perfectly summarises:

“the relationship between sleep and depressive illness is complex – depression may cause sleep problems and sleep problems may cause or contribute to depressive disorders. For some people, symptoms of depression occur before the onset of sleep problems. For others, sleep problems appear first.”

It’s another example of the cyclical nature of depression, and attests to why its so difficult to escape the vicious cycles that the illness poses. It’s amazing how many techniques I’ve tried that have not solved the insomnia problem: drinking alcohol, avoiding alcohol, eating early, reading before bed, working out at the gym, and yet no luck to be had. It may merely come down to the fact that a busy mind cannot switch off, and there is never any downtime. In fact ‘downtime’, in the form of lying in bed, just provides a basis for the brain to come alive and ruminate to its hearts content. The perpetual tiredness that this produces ensures that it’s extremely challenging, and often impossible, to find the motivation to engage in activities (social or otherwise) during the day, or even the ability to function in everyday tasks, as a yearning for sleep and rest is so strong, and attacks the body and mind at its core.

The article suggests some techniques for tackling tiredness:

  • Keep a regular sleep/wake schedule
  • Get into bright light soon after waking in the morning
  • Get some form of exercise every day
  • Avoid afternoon naps if you have nighttime insomnia
  • Limit caffeine and alcohol
  • Ask loved ones for help – you should not face depression alone

I must confess that caffeine is weakness of mine. I could never give it up completely, and in fact wouldn’t want to, but I will try to limit my intake. I will also attempt keep a record of my sleep to see if there is any correlation between factors such as alcohol, exercise, state mind, and what affect they have on my sleep. Should I manage to maintain the diary, I will aim to include the results on here at a later date.

For now I will have to persevere with my hope for an end to the insomnia, and the discovery of a source of energy for both body and mind. Although the lack of sleep has been the main focus of this blog, it can’t be underestimated how tiring and draining the thoughts and feelings associated with anxiety are, regardless of much sleep has been achieved. It sucks the energy and life out of you, and leaves you feeling detached, disconnected and constantly on edge, and not to mention with a total inability to relax. Let’s hope tonight I may reach the seemingly unattainable paradise…that of blissful, uninterrupted sleep.

Note

Don’t forget to ‘follow’ the blog, and also if there are any aspects of the illness you would like me to examine, then just let me know.

New Beginnings

I was sat in a doctors waiting room yesterday, which seems to be a constant pastime of mine at the moment. Nothing related with mental health I must add; I’ve had a tremendously bad cough for the last few days, which got worse to the point where it was hard to breathe. Turns out I’ve got bronchitis…it never rains but it pours! Anyway, I digress. While I was in the waiting room, and like in a previous blog, I indulged in some people watching. Whilst the first 5 minutes were focused on the annoying kid who kept kicking my leg and laughing, it was about 10 minutes before I was called through that the person who drew my attention entered the surgery. A lady was pushing an electric wheelchair, in which sat another lady (late forties I’m guessing), who was clearly severely disabled, both physically and mentally. I have no idea what specifically she was suffering from, but she had the comparable appearance to Stephen Hawking, in the sense that she was in a similar medically fitted electric wheelchair, and had limited mobility in her face and body. I couldn’t help but notice that the only part of her that seemed to have life, were her eyes, and this made me incredibly sad.

So many thoughts went through my mind, and I complemented many existential questions. I couldn’t help but question if I was in a similar situation whether my quality of life (which for her seemed non-existent) would be worth living for. I also questioned how people can claim there is a God, when frankly I wouldn’t want to be overseen by a God that would let that happen to a human being. See this link for more on that. It also, on a more positive note, emphasised the concept of unequivocal love, due the heartbreaking image of the lady she was with (daughter possibly) holding and stroking her hand for the entire duration of their time in the room. The image stayed with me for quite some time afterwards.

The relevance of this, is because of what I suggested in a previous blog regarding the intended helpful advice that people give sufferers of mental illness, specifically the idea that ‘there are plenty of people worse off than you in the world’. As I touched upon in my blog ‘The Best of Intentions, depression is not a rational illness, and therefore “its not possible to relieve the symptoms by rationally comparing it to another illness”. However, the lady in the waiting room posed a new concept for me. She can’t do anything about her illness, she can’t make any changes to her life, or put into action any techniques or plans, due to the fact that she is entirely reliant on somebody else for every facet of her life. In fact I got the impression that she was even unable to speak, which in itself is an incomprehensible thought.

It’s made me realise that while it won’t necessarily cure my illness, and I’m going to still have incredibly desolate moments, and times where I lose all hope, I’m going to try and put in place some things which at least will give me the best chance of making positive changes. The initial things I have considered are:

  • Continue exercise, which will have the twined effect of keeping me occupied, and being beneficial to my mental state.
  • Surround myself with people/friends, even when it feels incredibly hard. Live rather than exist.
  • Reinvestigate meditation and mindfulness
  • Continue writing the blog, and consider writing a book, as putting words down is something I enjoy.
  • Try and get back to my usual self. Making people laugh has always been the greatest feeling for me.
  • Care and look after myself more. Try and learn to like me for who I am.

The list is just an initial set of ideas, which hopefully will grow. I think the philosophy that will stand me in good stead is the understanding that if I fail 9 out of 10 times, then it doesn’t matter, because I will have succeeded once. This won’t be easy, and I will fail along the way, and in fact I have done so many times before (as a lot of these techniques I have tried on numerous occasions). But if I don’t make the attempt, then it’s a major injustice to the lady in the waiting room, because she would give anything in the world to be able to make changes to her life. She doesn’t have a choice…but I do.

What Lasts Forever, But Is Running Out Every Second?

The answer is ‘time’. Time is an often ignored factor of depression, and one which after a bit of research, I discover is a significant aspect of the illness for many people. This can manifest itself as time dragging by, and finding yourself in a constant state of detachment, or conversely as time rattling by at 100 miles an hour, and you finding yourself bewildered as to where it has gone.

This article by Carolyn Gregoire on the Huffington Post website makes reference to various studies into depression and time, which conclude that “people with depression reported a slower subjective experience of time – they often felt as though time was slowly dragging by” and also posits the idea that “depression may cause a slowing down of the individual’s internal clock”. Its certainly true that at times it feels as though you are in a bubble standing still and everything around you is racing by, a bit like those adverts that show someone standing still facing the camera, and the world around them is a blur, speeding in every direction.

With depression you can get into a cycle of doing the same thing every day, unable to partake in anything that constitutes variety or excitement, which can further this sense of time standing still. By not focussing on the moment, it can feel like you are drifting along, disconnected from people and everything that is going on around you. The study of Mindfulness attempts to reconnect you to the present moment, and encourage an awareness of everything that is going on around (and inside) you. I’ve attempted Mindfulness before, but failed to maintain it, as it requires a lot of dedication. It’s something I intend to give a second chance to.

The contrasting effect of ‘time’ on depression, is the perception that every moment can appear to be rushing by, and hurriedly disappearing, like sand falling through an hour glass.  Carolyn in her Huffington Post article remarks that “people with depression, a disorder characterized by obsessive negative thoughts and rumination, may struggle to give their full attention to the present moment. This can make it difficult to get absorbed in an activity, entering that ‘flow’ state of consciousness that can make you feel as if time is flying by”.

One of the running features of my depression is that at age 29, I can no longer pin hope on the idea that “i’ll grow out of it”, and the negative effects of the illness on the brain mean that I mourn and fester on the fact that I’m getting older, and how much I have missed out on because of my disorder. Career, relationships, achieving a semblance of happiness…the list goes on. While the typical response to this is, “think of all you have, all you have achieved”, as mentioned in a previous blog, the mind is not able to accept this as a valid reason for positive thinking. As I approach a big milestone, I question my life even more, berate myself for all I haven’t achieved, both personally and professionally. The more years that go by, the more convinced you become that you will never get better, and that causes a level of hopelessness and sadness that is impossible to put into words. Little things can spark a deep well of emotion, such as someone celebrating an 18th birthday (you question all you have done since you were 18, and wish you could go back and start again), or seeing a photo of yourself as a child (everything was ahead of you then, so much promise and potential). At age 18 I had hoped that I would get better, that there was “plenty of time”, and it would “sort itself” out. A decade down the line that viewpoint can’t help but get eroded away.

The great irony is that they say ‘time a great healer’ but sadly the reverse is true for depression. Time only acts a catalyst for more reflection, which for a depressive mind leads on to rumination and obsession, and consequently an inability to see any hope. I’ve always thought of depression as like being in a tunnel. You can see where you came from, and you can see where you are going, but in your present moment you are surrounded by darkness. The ultimate goal of depression is to focus on that light at the end of the tunnel, but that is a skill I have not learnt….yet.