An Unwinnable Tug Of War

Continuing on from my last post, I’m really struggling to climb back out of the pit I currently find myself in. My mind is full of unending doubts and negative assertions, and my body is in a constant state of anxiety. Time seems to drag, and my goal each day is to reach nighttime where I can sleep and find temporary respite. I’ve been dreaming a lot more than usual recently, and have found that these nightly imaginings are formed of idealised life events or pursuits: developing a relationship and ultimately having a family, being with friends and feeling like I belong, and being a child again with all the potential ahead and none of the burdens. Whilst these are pleasurable to engage with, the disappointment upon waking and realising they are not real brings with it a great sense of sadness.

The thing I’m finding most challenging is the persistent tug of war of that is occurring… on the one hand I want to be on my own and shut myself away from the world, whilst on the other hand I feel desperately alone with a unwavering worry that I am alienating my friends. It’s the biggest challenge of the illness, as there are so many contradictions, and conflicting emotions. Balancing a desperate need to reach out to people, with a heartfelt desire not to alienate those same people by being too full on, is a constant source of mental disharmony. When I’m at my most down I sometimes message people with perhaps a little too much honesty about how I’m feeling, and if I subsequently read into this that I may have upset someone or made them feel uncomfortable, then it only leads to more worry and anxiety. Unfortunately I can’t prevent this need to reach out.

It doesn’t help that the NHS ended my therapy last June before I felt I was ready to finish, and after consequently being re-referred by my GP, I haven’t heard anything from them for over 8 months. To say that I’m frustrated by this is the understatement of the year. I went back to the doctor today, to chase the re-referral for a fourth time, and his response was ‘oh, you should have heard something by now’. Thanks, that’s really helpful. With hope already funneling it’s way out of my body like sand through a sieve, this lack of purposeful help from the doctor does nothing to help curb the flow, and in fact just makes the holes in the sieve bigger, and the rush of sand quicker. If the very people who are supposed to help you cannot or will not, then how are you expected to carry on?

I’m going away for a few days now, which may present a chance to reflect. My worry is that it will only act as a temporary respite, and that the knowledge that I will be returning to the darkness very soon will be a burden. That’s assuming it doesn’t follow me away, which it has a devilish tendency to do. Whether it follows, or merely waits, I find myself running out of ways to deal with it, and lacking the  energy to go on fighting the good fight.

Avoiding the Speed Bumps

It has been almost a month since my last blog post, and generally when an extended period of time like this passes it either means that I’m in a very dark place, or in a relatively good space; the theory being that I either feel too low or disinterested to write anything, or conversely, I have no negative experiences or feelings to verbalise. Thankfully on this occasion I’m leaning towards the more positive end of the spectrum.

It’s also fair to say that I’ve had little time for writing over the past few weeks due to being extremely busy at work, and also a on holiday in Florida for almost two weeks. I believe the holiday was much needed, and felt like a true escape, not just from London, but also from my recent period of low and negative thinking. It also had the effect of transporting me back to simpler, more innocent times, a consequence of visiting the Disney theme parks as a family, just as I did when I was a child. While there is a danger that this bubble of safety I found myself in could lull me into a false sense of security, and merely act as a form of avoidance, thankfully some of the positive effects of the holiday have still lingered within me. Although the pessimist inside me insists this won’t last forever, and is merely a respite rather than a recovery.

Despite this relatively settled state of mind, it’s true to say that I enter the next few months with a great deal of trepidation, and a sense of impending doom which always seems a mere hairsbreadth away. This upcoming period has been a particularly difficult time for me in the past, acting as a catalyst for downward spirals of depression, and even though I can recognise this chain of events, it does not always mean I can can prevent it from happening. Whilst I am undoubtedly a huge fan of Christmas, it has always orchestrated extremely low feelings within, and it’s not always apparent why. Perhaps as this article suggests, “Christmas appears to be a trigger to engage in excessive self-reflection and rumination about the inadequacies of life in comparison with other people who seem to have more and do more”. Christmas is a period of celebrations, festivities and catching up with friends and family, and therefore perhaps its the presence of other people basking in apparent happiness, friendship and general joviality, which in turn precipitates feelings of loneliness, envy and deep critical self-reflection. Essentially the microcosm of Christmas fixates upon and exaggerates all of the emotions and anxieties within a 6 week period, and ensures that the shackles of depression cannot easily be broken free from.

It’s also true to state that the presence of my birthday a mere 2 weeks prior to Christmas adds measurably to the melting pot of emotions. It too acts as a time to reflect upon life gone by, mistakes made, relationships not yet achieved, and as each year passes this becomes more and more pronounced. With this year being my 30th birthday, I have a constant fear that this milestone will be the hardest yet. In many ways a birthday is worse than Christmas, as its the day in which you are the sole focus, as opposed to the global celebration of Christmas. So if no one turns up to your birthday, or you feel isolated and alone, its impossible to push away thoughts such as “nobody likes me”, “why can’t I be more liked?”, “why can’t I have the life of another person?” or “why have I not achieved x, y or z by this age?”. It also pressurises you to compare yourself with other people. Why does John Smith have a wife, a child, his own house and a purpose in his life at age 30, and yet I live on my own and have nothing compared the things he has achieved? Of course the mindset of a depressed person will conveniently forget all of the things that it has that John Smith doesn’t, as well as preemptively assuming that John Smith is happy inside, when in fact there is no way of telling if this is true.

It feels a shame to start this blog with positive thoughts, and end up writing about a purely negative mindset. Unfortunately its this way of thinking that a depressed persons mind forces upon its victim, and I am also being realistic based upon my own experiences, as well as being brutally honest, something which I vowed to do when I started this blog. As always I want nothing more than to be proven wrong, and if I come out of this next few months intact then I will feel it has been a huge achievement. Inevitably it helps that I’m on a steady road at this moment in time, as that can only help me in the long run. However, it’s the speed bumps later down the road that I’m worried about, as I don’t know if I have the strength to swerve past them, and am instead destined to collide head on with them, unable to prevent the devastation that will follow.

 

 

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.

Brutal Truths

A short post today as I am struggling for inspiration and also the energy (both physical and mental) to conjure up any lucid and meaningful thoughts. I’m very conscious of not wanting to repeat what I’ve said in previous posts, but sadly the repetitiveness of the depression ensure that every day the same thoughts and feelings surface, almost predictably on time, and with no regard for how they will affect the already fragile mind. It feels as though you are stuck in quicksand, and the effort of lifting a leg out is irrefutably exhausting, and also utterly pointless, as your next step results in being pulled back down once again into the mire.

My determination to do the right thing is unwavering, and I fulfill all of the suggested techniques, modes of thinking and action, possible distractions and potentially positive pursuits of my time, but to no avail. Any occasional relief is temporary, and a self imposed (and circumstance imposed) sense of isolation and its subsequent feeling of ‘friendlessness’, precipitates a disconnect from reality and from the fundamental human emotions and ideals. A contradictory factor of depression is that you can often not even feel sadness, frustration, or any feeling at all, as you seem to become a emotionless shadow of your formal self.

Exercise has become an important force for distraction, and also mental clarity. Not only does it provide a temporary euphoric glow as a result of pushing your body to it’s limits, but it also produces the thought that you are doing something positive, albeit for the very briefest of moments. When engaged in this physical activity, you have little time or energy to think of anything else, and this short term relief (matched only by dreamless sleep) is like a drug, the resulting high something that you cling onto, but which sadly fades away once the exercise ends.

I think the most damaging aspect of my mindset is that I spend much of my time thinking how I can gain the approval and affection of other people, or what I can do to ensure that people realise that I’m reaching out or wanting to gain solace in their friendship, rather than thinking of how I can treat myself better. I tend to put my own wellbeing to the back of the queue, and I guess this is also due to my self imposed low opinion of both my worth and also of my value as a person. I begrudgingly concede that the only way to help myself is to take more care of my own health, and to prioritise my own wellbeing above all else, as only then will I be in a suitable position, and have the necessary levels of strength, to finally free myself from the quicksand altogether. But alas, the irony of this supposed truth, is that I cannot do that alone.

Fighting The Fog

It’s been a month since my last blog post, mainly due to the fact I have been having a markedly difficult time and consequently have possessed very little energy or motivation to write anything, and no inspiration to formulate any coherent thoughts. After having been off work for almost 3 weeks it has been an incredibly frustrating period, although sadly something which I am all too familiar with. As my most recent blog posts made apparent, I had been heading down a steep slope for some time, and the inevitably that the ‘Black Dog’s’ clutches would eventually pull me fully down was perhaps obvious for all to see. When it gets particularly bad I have no mental or physical energy left to deal with the day to day, and it’s increasingly challenging to be around people, as I so desperately want to be part of their lives, but am unable to. It probably didn’t help that my weekly counseling sessions that I had been having for the last 10 months had come to an end, and so it felt like there was no outlet or support base for me within London, which probably instigated the implosion (obviously my family were supportive from back home).

One of the most commonly asked questions is ‘what was the trigger’ and most of the time there isn’t a noticeable one. It causes me great frustration that I’m unable to put my finger on what initially sets off an episode, because how can you fix something when you don’t know what is broken? Sadly one of depression’s key features is that often it rears its ugly head without warning, and completely out of the blue. This can be because the thoughts or feelings that precipitate it are so unconscious and so deeply ingrained that without deep psychological analysis it’s very difficult to recognise them. It’s pertinent to note that depression is also caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain (a reduction in serotonin levels) and therefore this ensures that the mood levels are so unpredictable, and prone to fluctuation. Of course there are big life events that people experience (bereavement, loss of job, breakup of relationship) that are very obvious triggers, but for me 95% of the time the black fog comes without warning, and there is very rarely any sunshine to burn out the heavy mist that envelopes me.

I started reading an interesting book on depression and mindfulness (before my motivation even for that deserted me) which posited an interesting theory regarding one aspect of depression, stating: “depression forges a connection in the brain between sad mood and negative thoughts, so that even normal sadness can reawaken major negative thoughts.” (The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness by Mark Williams , John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zinn)

So for example if the loss of a loved one caused a great sadness, then when we feel a sense of heartache again, even years later, then these original memories are reawakened, causing a further spiral down into depression. Or if we felt a particular sense of sadness caused by loneliness during childhood, then even a passing sadness in later life can trigger those feelings of inadequacy or isolation from the past. We may not even be aware that it is a thinking pattern from the past that is causing the current feelings. This quote from the book efficiently details the theory:

“This is why we can react so negatively to unhappiness: our experience is not one simply of sadness, but is colored powerfully by reawakened feelings of deficiency or inadequacy. What may make these reactivated thinking patterns most damaging is that we often don’t realize they are memories at all. We feel not good enough now without being aware that it is a thinking pattern from the past that is evoking the feeling.”

I’m not sure how these insights can really help me, as being aware they exist doesn’t alter the illness’ effect, just like explaining to someone why they have a headache doesn’t make the headache go away. And similarly, just because I can recognise these connections between memories and emotions doesn’t mean it can help me, as depression doesn’t allow for awareness to be a combatant against the illness. Most of the time I can recognise that I shouldn’t be thinking or feeling certain things, but that doesn’t make them go away, it only leads to further frustration at the fact that I can observe and diagnose them without this ability having any positive effect on my wellbeing. But I suppose that learning more about the illness can only be a good thing, and education can only ever be a positive weapon, as I have tried to petition through this blog.

I feel a very slight improvement upon how I was feeling a few weeks ago as I’ve had time to let the noise in my head settle down and time to reflect and recharge, although it hasn’t alleviated completely, and a medication change has left me feeling listless, bereft of energy and with an increasing foggy mind. My sense of loneliness has continued throughout as I’ve had no communication over the last few weeks (outside of family) which has let me feeling incredibly isolated, despondent and just plain sad, and only serves to confirm the conscious or subconscious ingrained beliefs that exist within. And if Mark Williams in his book is correct, these thoughts and feelings may have subconsciously conjured up thought patterns from earlier in my life. For a long time I have felt ‘why would anyone want to be friends or in a relationship with someone like myself, with the difficulties that the depression presents’? I can recognise that this is a typical negative thought pattern associated with the illness, but as the years go by these thoughts intensify in validity, making me feel that my imprint on other people is at best insignificant, at worst completely absent.

Despite a slight improvement over the last few weeks (although devastatingly slow for my liking) , I’m continually aware that it won’t be the last time I feel like this, and that it’s always lurking just below the surface. This reality is both disheartening and  heartbreaking, and leads to a desperate hope that once the fogs lifts, it does not descend again for a very long time.

Social Media and Mental Health

Whilst browsing the BBC news website, the following article caught my eye: ‘How social media helped me deal with my mental illness’ Before I had even read the article I predicted that it was going to be of particular interest to me, although I didn’t foresee how abundantly relatable it would prove. At the heart of it is an analysis of how important social media can be in dealing with mental illness, and how it can give a voice to people who are otherwise unable to express their thoughts or feelings. I won’t go into the article in too much depth, as I’d encourage you to read it through in your own time, but I did want to pick up on a couple of particular points that really struck me.

Sophie Hawker’s case study was particularly pertinent as I saw a reflection of myself within her words. For her social media was both a valuable information portal, and also an irreplaceable way of expressing herself. From my own personal experience of writing this blog, and its subsequent sharing through social media, I can attest that it has proven to be the most effective and advantageous way of expressing how I’m feeling, and allowing others an insight into my state of mind. Composing my thoughts on here also ensures that it becomes less of an issue talking about it with other people as they are already aware of how I’m feeling, and what struggles I’m going through. As Sophie perfectly puts it: “It gave me the confidence to talk about it in real life because I’d already practised talking about it online. I’d learnt more about it too, so I felt I could explain it to people a bit more.”

Sophie also touches upon another significant point when she discloses that “I found people of a similar age with similar interests who had experienced it at a similar time in their lives and that was really beneficial.” I’ve been surprised and gratified with the number of comments I’ve received from people in a similar situation to myself, and its especially rewarding when people declare that its a relief to read about someone who reflects their own circumstances. I’ve been especially touched by comments from contributors stating that my words have helped them in some way, and that makes me feel incredibly proud. Social media really causes you to be aware, more than any other time in the past, of how many people suffer from mental illness, and how you are not even remotely alone, even though you may think you are. It gives an outlet which 15-20 years ago would never have been possible, and I’m perturbed by how people with mental health issues were able to connect with other people in similar situations in ‘pre-internet’ days, and consequently I wonder at how many people slipped under the radar (perhaps fatally) through lack of an outlet the like of which exists today.

Madelaine also expresses similar beliefs, stating that “it was easier on social media to talk about it. There would be times at university when I would feel anxious and I wouldn’t tell my friends but I would tweet. I’d feel more confident saying it there.” If social media allows people to open up when they otherwise would not be able to, then it can only be a positive endeavor, and it not only benefits the individual, but is also a great way to educate those friends, family, colleagues etc about the illness, and provides a much more informative alternative to merely browsing an NHS Direct article. This is about real people and real lives.

Finally, I wanted to touch upon the responses people gave in the article to the question of what aspect of mental health they wanted to talk about (through the app Yik Yak). Here are some of the responses presented:

Mental health
Yik Yak
People with depression and anxeity
Mental health in schools
For me these responses epitomise how social media can play a huge part in mental health education and therapy, as they facilitate in making sufferers fundamentally aware that there are thousands of people in the same boat, and that you unequivocally posses a way to connect with them. It’s staggering how many times I read blogs, articles, or even those 4 quotes above and think ‘thats exactly how I feel’. I could have written each of those 4 statements, and that really is the main point of this article. Whilst social media gets a bad reputation for trolling, bullying or pointless posts, it’s much more satisfying to focus on the positives and the real influence it can have by allowing people like myself, or Sophie, or Madelaine, to finally be able to open up. As Daniel Holland says “You think you’re alone with these things. The ability to be able to discuss this with other people online is a big deal. It’s letting people know they aren’t alone.”
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Sunday Night Reflections

This weekend has not been a good one, and in fact has been the worst that I’ve had in a while. Whilst for the majority of the week the weekend is the holy grail which seems like a glorious mirage when imagined on a sleepy Monday morning commute to work. And yet by Sunday evening the mirage has been replaced by a desolate wasteland, and my feelings of positivity have morphed into resentment and dejection. Often I find myself looking at the clock on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and thinking ‘how is it only 2 o’clock’ or ‘I wish it was 7pm as I could then have a shower, eat, watch TV and then go to bed.’ It’s bad enough having these thoughts on a weekday, but to experience them at the weekend feels tantamount to treason, as these should be the days that you look back at on Monday morning with a great sense of accomplishment and nostalgia. Instead its merely another case of time slipping by, and the mantra of ‘living life to the full’ being so far from the truth that it would be laughable, if only it wasn’t so heartbreaking.

This weekend’s lack of fulfillment, and the consequent feelings of frustration and melancholia, was enhanced by the extreme exhaustion that I felt, significantly more severe than it has been for many months. Both Saturday and Sunday afternoon I had best part of 90 minute naps, and also went to bed early on Friday and Saturday night, and yet the utterly debilitating lethargy that coursed through my body ensured that even if I had wanted to do something with my time, I physically wouldn’t have been able to. On Saturday afternoon I tried to sit in the park and read, but had to call it quits after 30 minutes as I was so fatigued that I could barely read the words on the page. In fact all weekend I probably spent a total of 2 hours outside of my flat, and therefore the sense of isolation and frustration were at maximum levels come Sunday afternoon.

It didn’t help that the weather was glorious on Sunday, because you can get away with locking yourself away on a cold winters day, but in the summer months it just leads to headaches and more lethargy. It’s one of the reasons I dislike the summer months so much, and why I have a kind of reverse seasonal affective disorder, which actually affects about 10% of SAD sufferers. I can only hazard a guess at why this is. Possibly it’s the crippling lethargy caused by the warm and humid weather, which amplifies an already anxiety induced weariness. Or it could be that the longer days means there is essentially more time to fill, and thus its highlighted to me even more clearly that I achieve very little in my personal life. Or it could be that the warm weather and school holidays inevitably leads to people/families/partners etc enjoying happy moments together, which augments my own sense of loneliness, and need for human relationships. The short, cold, dark winter days can mask these truths, and the bleakness that manifests in those months acts as a kind of bandage, covering up a wound and allowing you to temporarily mask the cause of it.

In the past I was optimistic enough to make plans for weekends or evenings, or life in general, even though predictably I would cancel them or not gain any sense of enjoyment from them. Now though, I don’t posses the self belief or hope to even do that, and accept that getting through each day is the only achievement I will be able to have, or the closest thing to success. I’ve mentioned numerous times the cyclical nature of depression, and my weeks tend to epitomise this model. As the week progresses there is universal excitement of the approaching weekend, which everyone experiences in unison. But then almost as soon as 5pm on Friday hits, there is the reemergence of the anxiety, depression, tiredness, and all sense of joy at the prospect of the weekend evaporates. I don’t have the physical or mental energy to do anything with my time, but the lack of activities and engagement then precipitates a disintegration of the already diminished stamina. It’s a cycle that I‘m unsure how to break free of. As I sit here writing this I feel utterly drained, unrefreshed, and categorically dejected. I don’t know what’s worse, the fact that I’m feeling these things, or the fact that I’m resigned to them never changing. The lack of hope, and admittance of defeat, is perhaps the greatest tragedy.

Check out this blog post from My Anxiety Companion which helpfully voices some of the thoughts and feelings that anxiety can represent: http://www.myanxietycompanion.com/blog/13-things-anxiety-sufferers-need-you-to-understand