Trapped In The Mind Prison

I stared at the blank screen of my computer tonight for about 30 minutes, the blinking cursor acting as some sort of hypnotic device sending me into a mindless stupor. I couldn’t think what to write, a combination of the way I’m feeling, mixed with the desire to avoid repeating myself and appearing like a broken record. But at the end of the day, depression is predictable in its repetitiveness, and like the changing of the seasons, it follows the same warning signs, same patterns and same resulting feelings and emotions.

Only a few blog posts ago I was quietly optimistic about exercise potentially proving to be a help, and yet since that blog I haven’t been to the gym once, a result of the time restraints of returning to work, as well as a lack of energy or motivation which is symptomatic of the illness. This epitomises the way that little nuggets of hope tend to be offered, and yet they ultimately fall by the wayside, disregarded and discarded, the fleeting glimmer of positivity a long forgotten memory. Even in a single day there can be a momentary thunderbolt of manic positivity, which can almost instantly be distinguished as the negative thoughts force their way in, and infest the mind at a frightening speed. In some ways these rollercoaster days are worse than a solid day of low mood, as you have no idea where you stand.

The aftereffects of a horrible weekend have followed me into the new week, and the feelings latch on to me as I try and drag myself free. After spending a significant amount of money on going to a friends wedding in Wales, I felt so bad on the Saturday morning when I woke up that I had to get the train straight back home, missing the wedding and the rest of my trip in Wales. At the time the money didn’t seem important, I just had to escape and avoid suffocating in the feelings that were overwhelming me. Added to that was the guilt, self loathing and sense of weakness which followed. How can you explain to someone why you had to leave, how could anyone be expected to understand. Especially when I don’t even truly understand myself. It’s impossible to grasp the necessity for escape unless you have experienced it for yourself.

Another frustrating reality is how an image or experience can provoke different thoughts and emotions depending how you are feeling at the time. For example if chatting with a friend who describes how they are going out with their boyfriend/girlfriend at the weekend, or about a holiday with friends that they have booked, the reaction to this can depend upon your current state of mind.  If you are in a good place then this has little effect upon the mind, and you are able to engage perfectly well in the conversation. However, when already feeling low this simple act can produce only negative thoughts and feelings, such as ‘I will never be happy myself’ or ‘no one will ever love me’. It’s like the chicken or the egg scenario. Does the conversation/experience trigger the low mood, or does the low mood trigger a negative reaction to the conversation/experience? The depressed and anxious mind is busier than Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon, and you cannot prevent negative thinking or constant mental examination and stimulation.

There’s not a lot than I can do about this, as I can’t shut myself away from all of the causes of depression or anxiety, as even if I found myself in a locked room, my mind would still be my dutiful passenger, never allowing me to switch off or power down my thoughts. I sometimes wish that the mind had a ctrl-alt-del function and I could shut down my thoughts and just be able to exist in blissful ignorance, even if just for a short while. Sleep is the closest thing that comes to that, but the problem with sleep (when it comes) is that it provides only a fleeting leave of absence from the prison cell that is the mind, and once the 7 or 8 hours of oblivion are over, you wake up and are still locked behind bars, and still encased in your mental cell. Whereas in the past I have hoped that it may only be a short sentence that I have been handed, it now truly feels like a life sentence has been afforded me.

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“Dream a Little Dream of Me”

“There are two tragedies in life.
One is not to get your heart’s desire.
The other is to get it”.

George Bernard Shaw

This utterance from George Bernard Shaw has always been one of my favourite quotes. Despite being relatively simple, it is so multi-layered and its meaning can be deciphered in so many different ways, that it’s much more complex on closer inspection. I believe Shaw is suggesting that whilst failing to achieve what you most desire in life is certainly a tragedy, it is equally tragic to get what you desire, as then you have nothing left to dream of achieving. This then leads to a potential realisation that what you had supposed would be your hearts desire did not in fact fill the hole inside of you as you had hoped.

This concept reflects how I see depression in many ways. The first half of the quote is obvious in its relatability, as a key feature of depression is a yearning for something you don’t have (or don’t believe you have), such as friends, relationships, a purpose, inner peace, hope, a future etc. However, it is the second part that causes more consternation, and that is the notion of achieving something only to realise that it was not the solution to your problems that you had assumed it would be, and this in turn causes a perpetual sense of hopelessness to infest its way into the mind.

For example, if you find yourself in a mire of internal blackness and deep mental lethargy, then all you desire is to come out the other side of this turmoil, and feel yourself again. However, once this has been achieved, there is no sense of celebration or relief, as you have merely reached level ground, and not the joyous peak of the mountain that you had dreamed of scaling. The realities of what you desire are never what you hope they will be, and I think that this would suggest that what makes us happy is not something that we dream of or predict, as we could never conjure up something in our minds that would not ultimately let us down. Happiness must come from somewhere we don’t expect, and its unpredictability and stealthy approach is what makes it work. As John Barrymore says, “Happiness often sneaks in through a door you didn’t know you left open”

The very nature of depression is its refusal to allow you to recognise success, instead it finds great pleasure in berating you for your failures. For instance, in the last 10 years I have reached various milestones (moving to London, making friends, good job etc), but these achievements are not allowed to rise to the surface, as the realisation of the deep unhappiness that still exists ensures that this is mission impossible. A builder creating a house from scratch doesn’t celebrate when he has put in the walls, as the house is still missing a roof, and is therefore not complete, and not whole. This is what depression feels like. This notion of disappointment in achieving (or failing to achieve) pre-determined goals is also relatable to the more mundane aspects of mental illness. For example, the optimism that burrows under the skin when you are offered a glimmer of hope (therapy, medication, exercise based relief), is contrasted with the tragic sense of dejection when it fails to work out as you had hoped. You pin your hopes on something so strongly, that even if it works to a small extent, it can never live up to the idealised vision that you create in your mind. You so frequently deliberate and fatasise about what happiness could be, that how could that ever live up to expectations? The problem with dreaming is that you eventually wake up.

So what is worse, not getting your hearts desire, or getting what you most desire and being disappointed? The mind of the depressive concludes that those are the only two options. But surely there can be a third path, surely there is away of reaching that peak, and not being disappointed with the view. For me that pathway seems a million miles away. The very existence of a mountain means it can be climbed, but whilst I can picture vividly in my mind what could be my source of happiness, it neither seems reachable or sustainable to me at this time. Not only do I convince myself that it will never happen, but even it did, how could it meet the expectations of a lifetimes worth of dreaming? All that can be done is to try and cling onto Alexandre Dumas’s words,

“All human wisdom is summed up in two words; wait and hope”

Spreading The Word

Back in the spring  I was asked to contribute to a video to be shown at the ITV hosted Disability Confident Conference which was held in July on the set of Coronation Street in Manchester. The aim of the conference was to support independent production companies in the North West and along with the Department of Work and Pensions encourage them to become disability confident employers. Whilst it was something I was initially hesitant to take part in, I soon realised that it was too good an opportunity to miss, and that my anxieties and nervousness were no excuse to not push myself and participate in the video.

For those not familiar with the Disability Confident project (I certainly wasn’t) it was launched in July 2013 with the goal being to “debunk the myths around employing disabled people and encourage employers to take advantage of the wealth of talent available”. More information about the scheme can be found on the government website. On a personal level I was less interested in the governments’ relationship to the project due to the inevitable political nature of such policies and programmes. Whilst clearly the central message is unequivocally welcomed and vital in terms of raising awareness of important issues, the fact that it is a government run undertaking poses certain questions concerning the motivations for starting up the project, as often there is an agenda or self serving reason for politicians aligning themselves with certain causes, and I’m not interested in that.

What I am interested in is the message at the heart of the scheme, and thereupon how it is put into practice, as it obviously involves an issue that I feel strongly about and have personal experience of. I decided to contribute my thoughts to the video for two main reasons. Firstly I thought the ITV hosted conference was being done for completely the right reasons, and therefore felt it important to play my part, and try and help people understand what the ramifications of working with a disability or health issue are. Secondly, my employer has been incredibly supportive of myself and my struggles, and  I therefore felt it dutiful that I disclose my experiences on the matter in order to hopefully facilitate other companies taking the same lead as ITV. The questions asked were not so much about the intricacies and facets of my depression itself, but were more aimed at essentially opening up the discussion regarding illness/disabilities and their interconnection with work. It focused on the relationship between myself and my employer, as well suggesting ways in which employers in general can be more disability confident, and what facilities/structures can be put in place to to help overcome the hurdle of having a disability within the workplace.

Due to the very nature of my illness, this project was more stressful and nerve-racking that virtually anything I have done previously. Whilst opening up to strangers about the fact that I experience depression and anxiety was uncomfortable, it was actually the whole process of being filmed that caused the most anxiety as it has never been something I have been at ease with, and I prefer to stay as far away from the limelight as its possible to be. I believe this to be evident in the video, both in the fact that I’m sweating heavily from nerves (and the lights) and also by the numerous occasions that I stumble over my words, another reason why I’m much more confident in expressing myself in written form. But regardless of those issues, I’m content in the knowledge that I didn’t back out of participating (as I do with so many endeavours/activities), and I am proud that I managed to see it through to the end. Here is my part in the video:

My VT was edited together with various other clips of ITV employees to create a 15 minute video that ran throughout the day at the conference. ITV employees with a variety of disabilities (I hate that word, but cannot think of an alternative) featured in the video, and it was a fascinating watch as it opened my eyes to how people overcome such a plethora of challenges, and how vitally important it is to acknowledge the worth that these people provide. It was inspiring to see how people view their disability not as an infliction to hold them back, but rather as an incentive to push themselves further forward, and the successes that they have achieved within ITV are a testament to that. I don’t for one moment put myself in that group of inspirational people, as my issues pale into insignificance in comparison, but it was very rewarding to be part of a project that does encompass such a positive group of people.

Having now been back at work for 2 weeks I’ve negotiated myself back into the swing of things, and its refreshing to have a structure in my day once again. Unfortunately even after a week where I’ve felt I’m on a steady path, the darkness still manages to creep back in as it did on Saturday, a forceful reminder that I’m always one step away from the edge of the abyss. But hopefully if I continue to get involved with projects such as the Disability Confident video, then at the very least I can raise awareness for others and hopefully motivate them to ask for help when needed, and ultimately prevent them falling into the abyss as well.

Back To Routine

The first week back to work after 6 weeks absence was always going to be challenging (physically and mentally), despite the fact that it has become an all too familiar hurdle to overcome. The nerves the night before were inevitable, but once I had walked through the door the following morning it felt as though I hadn’t been away, and by lunchtime the initial nerves had all but been extinguished. I predict that the reason for this straightforward transition back into work is a combination of the great support from colleagues/friends at work, and also as an inevitable consequence of the mental stimulation required at work acting as a form of distraction from the thoughts and feelings I had been enduring over the previous weeks and months.

It’s not all been rosy though. The darkness still creeps back in when I’m alone, or when a conscious or unconscious trigger reignites the feelings of depression and anxiety, in turn causing the reemergence of the habitual sensation of standing upon the precipice. It’s perhaps not helped that my return back to full time work has lead to an overwhelming sense of exhaustion, and the mental and physical fatigue as always is both a cause and effect of low mood. The combination of the return to work/commuting and the effects of the medication are doubtlessly responsible for this lassitude, not to mention the fact that the anxiety and depression cause their own form of tiredness as a result of the strain put upon body and mind. This weekend I have therefore just crashed out and been unable to do very much at all, even having to cut short a gym session on Saturday as I had no strength in my body whatsoever.

But despite these issues, its unquestionably positive that I’m back at work, both in terms of as a way of focusing my mind, but also as a facilitation for being around friends and people that I care about and reaping the rewards that this provides. And the adverse feelings mentioned above notwithstanding, I’m in a relatively stable place, and my spirits are higher than they have been for a while. But I do continue to worry about how I will manage the fatigue, and more importantly at how easy it is to be attacked by the ‘black dog’ when my mind lets its guard down for even a second. At the moment his attacks are less severe, and less frequent, but I can constantly feel his presence inside me, and it’s incredibly disheartening to face the reality that another bad attack will inevitably come, whether that be in a week, a month or a year.