From Light to Dark

The good thing about a light switch is that it can be turned on or off. The light doesn’t simply extinguish of its own accord and plunge the room into darkness. Sadly my internal light switch is not like that, and alternates between light and dark at will. The plaster that is holding everything together always falls off eventually, and the wound reopens. It was like that yesterday, when the awful yet familiar feelings of anxiety and emptiness overwhelmed me, like at the flick of a switch. Was there a particular reason, or is it just combination of everything that is going on right now.

It’s been an extremely busy April, and in particular the last 7 days. Last Sunday I ran the London Marathon after about 7 months of training. An injury and record-breaking marathon temperatures meant that I was about an hour slower than I was hoping to be, but getting round the course was an achievement in itself, and something I could never have envisaged this time last year. (My Just Giving page is still open for donations if you can spare the cash: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/james-wiffen). The odd thing is that afterwards I didn’t feel any emotion at all, neither relief, happiness, pride or joy. It left a hole, not because I miss running as I certainly don’t, but perhaps because it was an anti-climax. Of course I’m glad I achieved it, and that I helped raised some money for Mind, but I was hoping for a bit more feeling at the end of it. This highlights my inability to gain pleasure from things in life, and also that happiness, or even emotional resonance in general, is a seemingly unreachable goal.

To add to the emotionally stressful week, this coming Monday I leave the job I’ve been at for the last 5 years. Whilst I will miss the job and the building, it’s the people I will miss most. I’ve made some lifelong friends in the last few years, and work has provided a constant in my life. Without it, I don’t really have anything. I really struggle around social occasions, and meeting new people, which is why the friends I have made have been so important. I don’t have a social life outside work, and that fact has been manageable (if not satisfactory) because I’ve been lucky enough to work with my friends. But not any more.

This week Avicii, the 28 year old Swedish DJ, sadly passed away, through what looks like suicide. His relatives said “He really fought a battle with thoughts about the meaning of life and happiness. Now he could not go on any longer. He wanted to find peace”. The regularity of this type of tragedy cannot help me think that one day my depression could kill me. I’m not saying that to be dramatic, but merely as a statement of fact. Suicide is the biggest killer for men, even more prevalent than cancer (see my last post about Project 84). It may be a preconception that it’s people at the extreme end of the mental health scale that take their own life; those who are hospitalised, or unable to function in everyday life. However, you can be totally functioning, and only at a moderate level of depression, and yet that doesn’t necessarily reduce your chances of the black dog striking.

I know there are many positives in my life, and I’m a very lucky person. But these feelings of grief that overwhelm me every so often are painful enough to make me forget that. I know I’m missing the key thing inside that makes me whole, and that’s the ability to have happiness. And the ability to switch the light back on when it goes out.

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Just Keep Going

It’s been 3 months since my last post, largely due to the fact that training for the marathon has completely taken over. It’s what I think about when I wake up and what I think about before I go to sleep. Someone once said to me that marathon training should become part of your life, not take over it. I fear it has for me. I guess this is to be expected, as a brain that is susceptible to anxiety is inevitably going to be working overtime when dealing with all the issues, thoughts and routines that go into the training. On top of that there are the physical effects, especially the constant state of physical and mental exhaustion, both from the running, and also the day to day mood fluctuations that affect me, which can consequently facilitate an unpreventable downward spiral.

But this is all a side issue, the most important thing is raising money for Mind and helping all of those people out there suffering with poor mental health. I’ve raised over £1150 so far, and I am indebted to all the people who have parted with their hard earned cash to help me with this cause. For anyone who would like to donate, please head over to my sponsorship page: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/james-wiffen And to find out about the valuable work that Mind does, check out their website: https://www.mind.org.uk/. For the 1 in 4 people that suffer a mental health issue each year, Mind’s mantra that “we believe no-one should have to face a mental health problem alone” is a message that needs to be spread far and wide.

My mood since my last blog on 3rd December can be easily characterised by this graph

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The pre-Christmas period was incredibly difficult as predicted, and in many ways I was relieved for it to be over, and the usually dark and grey January actually provided an opportunity to forget about the end of year struggles. Since Christmas it has been a consistent stream of peaks and troughs, with the peaks being too easy to fall off , and the troughs being impossibly difficult to climb out of. You go from one day feeling relatively at ease within yourself, to the very next day feeling so low and helpless that you can’t forsee how you will get through it. You never know which ‘you’ is going to be lifting their head from the pillow in the morning.

The next 6 weeks are going to be incredibly stressful, with the marathon on 22nd April, and then 8 days later my last day at work (due to redundancy). It’s going to be an emotional week, and I fear that an emptiness will sweep over me on 1st May, as two big things in my life will have ended, with the training having taken over the last 8 months, and my job being a central part of my life for over 5 years. I can’t help but feel trepidation about the future, and a great sadness at leaving the people that I have worked with since January 2013, and who have become like a family. It’s probably a good thing that the training is taking up so much time and headspace at the moment, as it doesn’t leave much room for dwelling on this forthcoming ending. But I predict that come 1st May it will push its way to front and centre in my mind.

Last week I had a personal setback which has greatly affected me the last few days, and has clouded the end of a week that began fairly positively. That’s the way it is though, a good start to the week is no guarantee of a good end to it. This made it all the more tough to get out there and run yesterday, and why I was plagued for 17 miles with thoughts and feelings that I just couldn’t escape. The faster I ran, the faster they chased me. I guess if I take off my ultra critical hat that has been fused to my head for so long, I should pat myself on the back for dragging myself round with that extra weight on my shoulders, in many ways acting as a metaphor for life. You’ve just got to keep going.

Running To and Running From

This is the first blog that I’ve posted in over three months, and the gap has been down to a number of reasons. Firstly, when I’ve been feeling particularly down I haven’t been able to summon the motivation to write anything, certainly not about how I’m feeling. Secondly, it can be quite exhausting to confront and verbalise moments of depression or low mood, and it therefore becomes easier to merely bury your head in the sand and try to forget. Finally, I guess I just ran out of things to say without repeating myself or appearing to be overtly negative.

A couple of weeks ago I was offered a place in next years London Marathon running for the charity Mind, which I duly accepted. Whilst this is an extremely daunting prospect, and feels like an enormous mountain to scale, I concluded that it was a great opportunity to raise awareness of the illness (and raise some money), while at the same time presenting me with a significant personal challenge to overcome. I’ve started running short distances at the gym in the last few weeks (5-7km) and whilst it feels as though I’m a monumental distance from the end goal, it is at least a start. Although I’m finding it truly exhausting (on top of the pre-existing medication/anxiety induced tiredness), the moments immediately after the running can feel almost euphoric due to the inevitable endorphin rush. Perhaps more importantly the running allows me to take my mind off all other thoughts and simply exist in the moment, pushing my body as far as it will go, and thus being temporarily unable to focus on the never-ending pervasive negative thoughts.

There is a long way to go, and it seems like an insurmountable challenge, but I’ll try not to look too far ahead, and will instead attempt to concentrate on the very short-term. If anyone is able to donate a small amount, then I would be extremely grateful. Please check out my Just Giving page: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/james-wiffen? It really is for a great cause, and can help provide life changing support to those people that Mind helps.

The marathon is an example of running towards something, but at the same time I also find myself constantly running away from things in the rest of my life. The anxiety that’s prevalent within myself prevents me, and always has done, from doing the things that are typically associated with happiness: seeing friends, developing relationships, persuing hobbies or interests etc. I can’t count the number of times that I have backed out of seeing friends, going to parties, weddings, pre-arranged activities or just doing things that a ‘normal’ person would do, and in fact this doesn’t seem to be changing with age. I feel so positive about doing them initially, but as the time approaches the anxiety begins to prickle at the surface of the skin, until eventually it invades every inch of me, ensuring that the only option I can see is to back out. The inevitable guilt and feelings of letting people down are immediate, as is the knowledge that I’m failing to engage in the things that could or should provide a chance of happiness. The cycle of excitement, fear, regret is on a constant loop, and it gets to a point where I don’t bother arranging things as I can no longer kid myself into thinking I will follow them through.

The marathon is obviously a positive action, and provides an opportunity to run towards a defined destination. I only wish this could be replicated in the rest of my life, as at the moment it feels as though I’m running away, and not towards, the things that I need most of all.

Running Away

Thankfully the title is not referring to any type of literal or metaphorical escape, but is in fact a reference to my new found addiction to running. Addiction is described as “the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice”, and I believe it’s use in this situation is apt, although thankfully it is not a dependence of the negative variety usually associated with the term. Perhaps ‘addiction’ is too strong a word, as that implies it is an ‘unhealthy pursuit’ precipitated by a belief that you cannot live without something, and that you will go to any length for your next ‘hit’. However, there are clearly some endeavours (such as exercise) where a craving is completely advantageous, and the negative repercussions are noticeable by their absence.

It started off as a functional avocation, primarily as an attempt to lose a bit of weight and increase non-existent levels of fitness. I’ve applied for the London Marathon next year through a few mental health charities and whilst this is not directly related (as a place is not guaranteed…and besides next April is so far away), in the back of mind I thought that it would be a good idea to start some basic training to see how I would cope. The second motivation, and one which has formed a basis for many failed attempts at joining and maintaining a presence at the gym, was the widely held belief that exercise can be invaluable in managing poor mental health. Whilst it can so often be a frustrating cliché (“why don’t you go for a walk”… if only it were that simple), it is certainly a theory based on scientific fact.  Regular exercise can “release feel-good brain chemicals that may ease depression (neurotransmitters, endorphins and endocannabinoids) and it can reduce immune system chemicals that can worsen depression.”

This scientific jargon is all well and good, but putting it in practice is another thing entirely. Often when you find yourself a deep depressive episode you cannot drag yourself out to the gym or the park. Even if you can manage that, finding the motivation to maintain a regular commitment to exercise can be inexorably challenging. However, once I had got through the first couple of days (nearly being sick and struggling to breathe), the effects of the running were quite intoxicating. I haven’t found the confidence yet to run outside the confines on the gym, but I find the static and contained nature of the treadmill quite reassuring. During the actual running I push myself hard, and for that period of exertion my mind can become relatively blank; the need to propel my muscles to their limits, and fight the effects of the lactic acid build up, ensuring that there is little space for any ruminations or worrying. If I’m lucky the only noise in my brain is from the music that is being pumped in from my iphone’s Spotify app.

The effects of a tough run (I’m focused only on running rather than other cardio options) can remain with you for some time afterwards. Whilst the actual exercise can be painful at times, the after effects are mildly euphoric, both in terms of a sense of achievement, but also as a physical act of reducing anxiety and increasing energy levels. Admittedly these sensations wear off within a few hours, and thus only provide a temporary relief, but that is certainly better than nothing. I have occasionally pushed myself too hard, especially considering I’ve only been immersed in the exercise for a couple of weeks, and this can lead to some physical difficulties afterwards. But that is something I hope I will learn to curb over time.

Whether this is a pursuit I will be able to maintain, and whether the concept of achieving a regular attendance (let alone running a marathon) is all but a pipe dream, only time will tell. I’m sure there will be times that I cannot motivate myself to leave the flat, or when my mind is too frazzled to even comprehend a trip the gym. But like depression in general, this is a hurdle to overcome, and the difficult first step has been taken. The Black Dog revels in keeping you weighed down in lethargy and inactivity, so if this can present an opportunity to get one over on the old adversary, then I hope my running shoes will be called into action for a long while yet.

Group Therapy

About 10 months ago I ended a 9 month course of 1-1 psychotherapy. Whilst it was useful to have a weekly meeting with my therapist where I could talk through any issues or struggles that I was going through, the course ended whilst I was still in a bad place, and therefore I didn’t have the chance to determine whether psychotherapy would ultimately prove a helpful tool for me. I fully appreciate that the NHS is oversubscribed, and that there are people on long waiting lists anticipating help, and so it’s only fair that they should have a similar opportunity as me to receive therapeutic support. However, I don’t believe it was conducive to improving my state of mind to cease the therapy when I did, as I lost the only outlet where I felt able to open up about almost anything (other than this blog of course). Continuing the therapy for another year may not have made any significant difference to my wellbeing, but it would have been desirable to persevere until I felt mentally ready to end the treatment. Within a few weeks of finishing the course I asked my doctor to re-refer me as I was still failing to cope with my mental health. It took about 10 months to get a review appointment, and whilst I have become accustomed to long periods of waiting, it doesn’t ever get any easier or less frustrating.

The psychotherapist I met with for a review recommended that I try group therapy as my next step, as this is something I have not attempted before, and he hypothesised that engaging with other people with mental health issues could prove rewarding, as well as potentially addressing some of the social difficulties that I find myself with. Group therapy has always been something I have steered clear of, and I have repeatedly pushed for 1-1 treatments. I have always reasoned that opening up about the most personal of inner thoughts and feelings to one person is hard enough, but to do so to 7 or 8 strangers is a prospect that causes my pulse to race at the mere thought. Of course my rational mind realises the advantages of striving towards this group undertaking, and how it is absolutely the right course of action to pursue. Nevertheless, even though the first session is still 4 days away, I’m already getting the familiar sickening feelings of unease creeping through by body, and find myself questioning whether it is worth putting myself through this extra anxiety. But of course it is, and that is the knowledge that will ultimately drive me to turn up to the first session on Thursday.

The first few weeks will inevitably be the most challenging, and I expect that after a month or so has gone by I will have fallen into a routine and feel slightly more comfortable. It’s potentially a 2 year course, and so I’m in it for the long haul. What has helped greatly is the support I’ve had from work once again, and being given permission to work from home on the days I’m at therapy ensures that I can fully focus on the sessions, and go into them with a clear mind. It’s surprising how tiring talking for 90 minutes can be, and how the mind can be in overdrive for hours afterwards, ruminating on what was said and how I feel the session went.

Despite my unavoidable negative mindset leading me to view therapy as a defeat and failure of myself and my life up to now, I must also keep in mind the fact that I have waited almost a year to be in this position and to have this opportunity, and consequently I need to try to discourage that unfavourable thought process. A trademark attribute of depression is a need to focus upon the defeats, and ignore the victories. Winning a race would not elicit the response ‘yes I won!’, but instead ‘thank God I didn’t lose’. I’m sure this therapy course will have lots of defeats, and days where I feel that I cannot face it, but I’ve got to believe that along the way there will be some victories as well. I have so much admiration for everyone who competed in the London Marathon today, and this includes all of the runners taking part on behalf of mental health charities. The achievements of human beings are remarkable, and I will try to take inspiration from their triumphs and endeavours going forward. It may be a cliché, and an overused soundbite, but there is so much truth in the old adage that “a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”.