Unwanted Change

A few months ago we were told that The London Studios, where I have worked since 2013, will be closing down next April, resulting in redundancy of the whole department. This wasn’t an immense shock and it had been on the cards for some time, but it was still a surprise that it was happening so soon. I’ve kept reassuring myself that I’m “not too worried”, and that “change might be a good thing”. It certainly has been one the few things that hasn’t affected my mood in a negative way. Or so I thought. On reflection, I’ve probably underestimated how the next 12 months are going to affect me, and it’s only in the last few days that this realisation has hit me.

A person like myself relies on stability, and the concept of change combined with the breakdown of routine, can be an irrefutable source of anguish and despondent ruminations. Depression thrives amongst the unknowns, the what-ifs and the disruption of the equilibrium. I will have been in my job for 5 years, which is a significant period of time for anyone, and whatever else has been going on in my life, it has provided a security and comfort the like of which is only fully appreciated once you realise that it is ending.

The job itself is not the thing that concerns me the most, as it will hopefully provide me with a necessary push towards a different challenge, and an understanding of what it is that I want to do with my life. I can become too comfortable, thriving on the stability and lack of change, which consequently prevents me from progressing. In addition to this, I’d like to believe that I have enough experience to enable me to find another job in the future, and there will be opportunities out there waiting to be found. No, the thing that bothers me the most, and that has been swirling round my mind like smoke around a bonfire, is that my job has essentially been my life for the last 5 years. For someone who lives alone, and does not find socialising all that easy, work essentially becomes my existence, and the people I work with my family. I have made some very good friends through my job, who I get to work with every day, and the knowledge that this will all end has made me feel extremely dejected, as I recognise that it will leave a great hole in my life.

Nostalgia and melancholia, in my experience, play a significant role in depression. The realisation that things will not always be as they are, and that people will move on, is an unwanted facilitator of sadness. People get married, move away, get new jobs, have children, and thus things are always changing, and constantly in flux. In years to come I will look back at the last 5 years, and this snapshot in time will merely be a memory. It will no longer be the present or the future, but will be deeply entrenched in the past. The idea that ‘all good things must come to an end’ is true, but this recognition makes it no easier to handle. When something is happening you never imagine that one day it will be over, and that it will only exist as a distant recollection.

I guess this notion of change also causes me to focus on my own place within the world. In 12 months time people will move on and still have lives they live, jobs they work and families they bring up. But I see myself as being stuck, treading water, and that whilst everyone will move on, I will remain standing still in the same spot. This sense of nostalgia for the past coupled with a disappointment of the prospects for the future, is not simply evident within this particular scenario. It is ever-present throughout the entirety of my life. Thoughts, memories and dreams all become entangled, and it’s impossible to discern how to turn them into a source of positivity, rather than as a reminder of times gone by or perceived failings of oneself. I’m so often stuck in the past, that I forget about the present that is passing me by, and the future that has yet to be written.

 

The Cycle of Thoughts and Feelings

Thoughts and feelings are at the very heart of Depression. The simple fact is that the thoughts we have can influence the feelings we experience, and vice versa. It’s a viscous cycle, and the cyclical nature of the illness ensures that once you are in the cycle, it is very difficult to break free. Thoughts can often pop into your head from seemingly out of nowhere, and of their own volition. Frequently however, these introspections are provoked by associations arising from what we see or hear around us. Photos, friends, people in the street, a piece of music, or a particular building can all conjure up thoughts, and consequently feelings, which are both unwanted and damaging. This can happen to all of us, although I would suggest that those with a depressive disorder will experience them in a far greater frequency.

Memories can be very significant stimuli in depression, and can be triggered by a wide variety of occurrences. For example, the other day I walked past a previous flat I had lived in, for the first time in about 3 years. This induced painful memories of the difficulties I was going through when I resided there, and the dark place that I found myself in. For the brief time the building was in my eye line it reignited the anxiety I had all those years ago, and the effect this had upon me took some time to wear off. Just as they say a smell of cooking can take you back to your family kitchen when you were a kid, this visual reminder conjured up all kinds on unwanted sensations and anxieties. On another occasion, I walked past someone in the street who looked remarkably like a person from a few years ago who I had a bad experience with, and this generated the same feelings of anger, sadness and frustration that I had felt at the time. It acted as a kind of portal, which transported me back to 3 years ago and bestowed upon me the exact emotions I had experienced during that period.

It can work the other way too. A certain image or stimulus may conjure up memories of a happy event, and illicit a smile and feeling of warmth, as though you are living through that event once again. The problem stems from the fact that the effects of positive memories wear off extremely quickly, whereas the effects of negative ones can linger for many hours or even days.

When a particular issue or source of anxiety is at it’s height, I often focus upon those things that will justify and confirm my beliefs about it, rather than seeking out those truths that may offer a counter argument. For example, if I get self conscious or low about my appearance I will ‘notice’ people who in my mind are ‘more attractive’, ‘normal looking’, and consequently to my prejudiced perception ‘happy’. This will then feed my exiting beliefs and anxieties, and prolong the cycle of mental unrest. It becomes impossible to see the things that would offer a counter to these beliefs, as you cannot help becoming blind to them. Depression could be described as like a special pair of glasses that allow you to see the negative things, but blinds you to all of the positives.

It seems to me that a need for support from other people is inevitable, and paramount as a facilitation to help you try and overcome this. Not so much for reassurance, as that can have detrimental consequences and potentially lead to a heavy reliance on reassurance before you can even function at all (another cyclical process). But just having other people who are not wearing the ‘depression glasses’ can encourage you to open your eyes and see things for what they really are. My illness (among other factors) has prevented me from ever having a girlfriend, and that has always been a huge roadblock to getting to where I want to be, and consequently has promoted deep levels sadness and frustration, as well as an inevitable elevation of that part of my ‘desired life’ to a near mythic unobtainable feat. This is not merely because ‘you want what you don’t have’, but because of the knowledge that whilst it wouldn’t necessarily solve everything, it would mean that I would no longer have to do things alone, and would enable me to express my emotions in a positive way towards another person (love, happiness) rather than a negative one (anxiety, fear, stress, resentment). Plus it’s its just too damn appealing to be with someone who loves you for who you are, and for which you can reciprocate.

Obviously thoughts and feelings aren’t going to go away, and nor should they, as they are what makes us who we are. The goal however, is to be in a position where you are in control of your thoughts and feelings, rather than them being in control of you. It feels as though mine do not only control me, but in fact own me, and dictate every step of my life. If there is a way to take back this ownership, then that must be what I, and indeed everyone, should aspire to.

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.

The Marathon of Life

Sometimes I feel I’m going nowhere
Sometimes I’m sure I never will
She said it’s ‘cos I’m always moving
I never notice ‘cos I never stand still

Sometimes I feel like I’m falling
Falling fast and falling free
She said my darling you’re not falling
Always looked like you were flying to me

© Passenger 2014

“How was your weekend, did you get up to much?” “Yes it was good, I went out for drinks on Friday night, brunch with friends on Saturday and then out to the theatre in the evening, and on Sunday a walk in the park and lunch on the Thames. How about you James?” “Umm…mine was ok thanks, didn’t do much”. That’s pretty much an accurate Monday morning conversation, one which has an inevitability about it despite my determination for it to be to the contrary. By the time the weekend rolls round I am so exhausted that all I yearn for is rest, catching up with sleep, and shutting myself away. This exhaustion is almost certainly caused by a number of factors: broken/little sleep, early starts for work, mental fatigue caused by anxiety, and could also be the resulting symptom of the medication I take. All in all, by Friday evening my energy reserves are totally spent, and my mind and body is running on empty.

In the short term a weekend of doing very little is not only a relief, but also a necessity, because anything other than that would mean by Monday morning the internal battery would still be dead. However, come Sunday night the frustration, regret, disconsolateness and anxiety sets in. I’ve wasted another weekend, failing to achieve anything, or gain any pleasure or enjoyment from supposed recreation time. These regrets are in a sense a metaphor for the regrets in my life: missed opportunities, unfulfilled ambitions and failed potential.

Approaching a milestone this year (I’m currently 29) is frightening, not for the number itself, but more so as an indicator of all the time that has elapsed previously, and how the path of my life has turned out. Of course the depression induced pessimism ensures I don’t contemplate the positive moments and the achievements that I have been gifted, or the incredible people I have met, but instead I dwell upon where I should be now in my life, and all the things I have not achieved on a personal level. My anger and frustration is aimed predominantly at the ‘Black Dog’ that has held me back, and the probable truth that I was too weak to resist it. I guess approaching this years age milestone also makes me reminisce about how at 20 years old I naively thought I could beat this illness of the mind; time was on my side, and I had everything ahead of me. Now that hope seems a lifetime ago, and in its place is hopelessness, and none of the optimism I felt all of those years ago. Could I have done anything differently? I’m not sure.

It’s why I find it so difficult to look at pictures of myself as a child:

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It feels as though I’m looking at a different person, an undefined child on a landscape of possibilities. They say that the eyes are the window to the soul, and in those eyes I can see a perception of hope, expectations, bright eyed innocence, and all the promise of fulfillment still ahead. When I look in the mirror now I see the same eyes looking back at me, but they are tired, and filled with sadness, resignation, and most worryingly, defeat. I question whether I could have made alternative choices all those years ago to forge a different path, but I feel this is being unfairly harsh on myself, as the depression would have taken hold regardless. People will tell me that nothing can be done about the past, and its the present and future where things can be changed, and they are quite accurate in this hypothesis. The complication to this theory is that I can’t see that potential for change, and even if it were possible, I can’t clear my head of all that has gone before, and all the things I should have experienced and achieved by now. This becomes more difficult the older I get. I’d liken the passing of time and its relationship to depression as that of running a marathon; the first few miles are pretty easy, and you feel confident and full of energy, believing wholeheartedly that as you move further along you will become stronger and stronger. But the more miles you run, the harder it becomes, the finish line seems to get further and further away, and your confidence in making it dwindles by the wayside. You have been weakened. As each mile (or year) goes by, it becomes easier to look back, than it is to look forward, ensuring a sense of being trapped in a tidal wave of conflicting emotions.

As Mental Health Awareness Week ends, I realise I need to focus on this years topic of maintaining and building relationships, because running this particular marathon is too difficult to do alone. It’s been encouraging to see people opening up and highlighting the importance of mental health in these last 7 days, and as I said in my previous post, its vital that this doesn’t end now that the week is over. Opening up isn’t necessarily going to help me solve my problems, but if it can inspire or help others to give voice to their own experiences and issues, then I will be very proud of that, and it will be an achievement that will stay with me for some time. No one should ever feel alone. In this day of the internet, social networking and global platforms no one is ever truly alone. The hardest part is realising this, and finding the courage to admit your thoughts and feelings both to yourself, and those around you.

Fighting The Good Fight

Today marks the start of Mental Health Awareness week, which aims to raise awareness of issues around mental illness, as well as focusing on this years theme which is the importance of relationships. I believe its incredibly important to have events like this, as they spotlight peoples attention onto the illness, and also help non-sufferers to be exposed to the many sources of information that are being put out for consumption during this week. Information is everything, and if this week can help spread it to all corners of the population, then its done its job.

I’ve touched upon the importance of relationships and support from others in a number of blogs, and it really can’t be emphasised enough the positive influence of interactions and communications with other people, which are vital to every human being, but even more so for sufferer’s of depression due to the fact that feelings of loneliness and isolation are so intrinsically attached to low mood. The cyclical nature of depression often results in the things you need most also being the things you desire the least. When the despair hits, and your insides feel like they have been torn out, all you crave is to hide away from people, as interacting feels so arduous, and exhausting. However, inevitably this lack of interchange then leads to the feelings of detachment, loneliness and heartache, and precipitates the mood sinking further and further down, because although you feel that all you need is to be alone, this has the reverse affect of creating a yearning for human contact…for a friendly face, or a comforting word.

One of the significant truths is that people suffering from depression may desperately want to reach out, but as a result of the aforementioned perceived need to hide oneself away, it may transpire that they feel unable to open up and alert others that they are in a difficult place. I therefore believe that the most important sentiment that can be nurtured this week is the knowledge that just because someone hasn’t reached out, doesn’t mean they are ok. Contrary to what we are brought up believing, no news is not necessarily always good news. Being aware of when a friend or loved one is struggling and needs love and support is the biggest skill needed when tackling mental health, and only by education and raising awareness can this be achieved. If you know someone with depression or similar, know that there is a good chance they are feeling lonely, friendless or unloved, and so reaching out to them, even if indirectly, could prove unequivocally beneficial to them in their quest to scale the mountain of their current torment. I’ve used the following quote from Stephen Fry a number of times before, but I believe this week more than any other it is particularly pertinent:

“If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather. Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.”

All of those emotions that he lists I felt at the weekend, and in fact can feel on most days. They may be brief flirtations, or full on affairs in scale, but they are always there just below the surface, waiting to rear their head. Each day can be a rollercoaster of emotions, and one minute you can be ok and settled, and the next moment feel like you have gone 10 rounds with Floyd Mayweather. As with a fallen boxer, the challenge is getting back up again when you have been knocked down. It’s the hardest thing in the world, as you know your opponent is there waiting to knock you down again. Thats where relationships come in. If you have friends, family and loved ones in the ring with you, then you have the upper hand, and together can knock depression into the ropes.

My advice this week would therefore be to make the most of all of the information out there in newspapers, on TV, online, and in workplaces, as it really is the best time to gain awareness of mental health due to the plethora of materials available. I’d also suggest that the one negative aspect of Mental Health Awareness Week is the reference to ‘week’ in its name. Mental illnesses are there every day of the year, and when the flag waving of this week is over, and the broadcasters and media outlets stop talking about depression now they have ‘done their bit’, don’t forget that the pain of sufferers doesn’t stop, and the need to shout from the rooftops doesn’t end. Let’s make this week the start of change, rather than just a speck in time. Let’s ensure that the flow of information doesn’t end, and the talking doesn’t stop. It’s far too important for that to happen.

 

Updates

Firstly, I wanted to say a big thankyou. To date I’ve had over 1600 views of my blog posts, and over 1000 visitors to the site. This is incredibly humbling, and also very encouraging, as when I started this project back in January it was initially as an outlet for myself, and I never anticipated the support I’ve received. It certainly confirms to me that I made the right decision opening up in this way, and inspires me to do bigger and better things in the future.

One of the most satisfying aspects of doing the blog has been the messages and comments I have received from people, in particular those personally affected by depression and anxiety. I received this comment recently on one of my blogs by hopingandmunching

“Hello, just wanted to let you know that I relate to your thoughts. I have also struggled with depression and anxiety for many years. I get hopeful that it will finally get better, only to have those hopes crushed by another relapse. But don’t give up hope, even if you feel like you are slipping again. I think it’s important that we are kind to ourselves and forgive ourselves, and this will help our progress. I hope that you succeed and find richness and meaning in life that we miss our on because of this”

Its incredibly rewarding that people feel they are able to open up, and share their stories, and is again justifies to myself that the blog is a positive thing to be doing. The only way of tackling this illness is by getting people talking, and feeling comfortable in opening up about their experiences, and its great to see the evidence of this.

On another note, next week is Mental Health Awareness Week. This yearly event originated in 2000, and each year there is a different focus, for example anxiety, sleep deprivation and exercise. In the spotlight this year is relationships, and the importance of embracing and maintaining them to promote better mental health, and this description from The Mental Health Foundation explains why its such an important topic:

“We believe we urgently need a greater focus on the quality of our relationships. We need to understand just how fundamental relationships are to our health and wellbeing. We cannot flourish as individuals and communities without them. In fact, they are as vital as better-established lifestyle factors, such as eating well, exercising more and stopping smoking.

We are lobbying national governments, public bodies and employers to promote good relationships and to tackle the barriers to forming them, including mounting pressures on work–life balance and the impact of bullying and unhealthy relationships.

But we have a challenge for the public too. We are asking everyone to go the extra mile in prioritising their relationships. We are calling on people to make a relationship resolution: to assess how much time we actively commit to building and maintaining good relationships, and to ask whether we can invest more in being present with and listening to friends, family and colleagues.”

Check out their website for information on events happening around the country, and how you can help contribute to this truly worthwhile cause.

Finally for updates, the other day I took part in the filming that I mentioned a few weeks ago in a previous blog. ITV are hosting a Disability Confident conference in July which aims to:

  • challenge attitudes towards disability
  • increase understanding of disability
  • remove barriers to disabled people and those with long term health conditions in employment
  • ensure that disabled people have the opportunities to fulfil their potential and realise their aspirations

I was asked to film a VT which will be shown at the conference, in which I talk about my experiences with depression, as well as what challenges it poses within the workplace, and how ITV has been instrumental in supporting me through the last few years of difficult times. It was filmed on the Good Morning Britain set and I was terrified: the lights, microphone and cameras were extremely intimidating, and I was sweating buckets, despite the fact the studio was air conditioned! It was all a bit of a blur, and I can’t even remember the specifics of what I said, but if it helps people in anyway, then all the nerves will be totally worth it. It all goes back to the importance of raising awareness, getting people talking, and instilling a network of support which will prove so crucial. Building and supporting relationships are the only way that this illness can be beaten. And it can be beaten. It will be beaten.

Crazy Little Thing Called Love

If asked what is significant about the month of May, it’s likely that you will conjure up images of long bank holiday weekends, visits to the beach, the release of the latest superhero blockbuster, evenings that seem to go on forever, and a warm glow inside that comes with the heralding of summer. However, May also signals another event, one that many people are unaware of. From 16th-22nd May it is Mental Health Awareness Week, a 7 day programme of events and information from the Mental Health Foundation, tasked with raising awareness and getting people talking. Check out this link for more information.

I must confess that I was ignorant of this project, despite the fact that the first Mental Health Awareness Week was 16 years ago. From doing a bit of research I’ve discovered that each year focuses on a different aspect of mental health, and this year it will place relationships in the spotlight. According to the website, “healthy and supportive relationships reduce the risk of mental ill-health. This Mental Health Awareness Week we are celebrating the connections, the relationships, the people in our lives that add to our wellbeing and protect and sustain our mental health. From family and friends, to colleagues and neighbours; taking notice of those connections that make you feel safe and supported.”

I recognise that I’ve concentrated on relationships, and also the idea of loneliness, in previous blogs, but its such a relevant and crucial facet of the illness, that I feel it can’t be examined too many times. As you can see from above, its just just romantic relationships, but also that of friends and colleagues, and also the wider community of mental illness sufferers. Relationships are the most important thing in our lives, and without them, we would not survive. Over 90% of people who commit suicide have a mental illness, and I don’t think it’s a huge leap to state that loneliness is a major contributing factor. I’ve never considered ending my life, but I would certainly say that my lowest moments have been when I have felt isolated, unloved or alone, whether literally alone, or alone on the inside and feeling disconnected from those around me.

If I take the last 7 days, which contain the usual peaks and troughs of my mood, the best moments are when I have been around friends and colleagues (which happen to be one and the same thing). Simple pursuits such as making someone laugh gives me a huge boost internally, which I predict is as a result of creating that connection with another human being, and perceiving that you can have a positive impact on them. The correlation between mood and the presence of other people cannot be a coincidence. The problem however, is that when a downward spiral begins, all you want is to shut yourself away from everyone, and its too exhausting to socialise or be in the presence of the very people that make you happy. How unfair is it that the one thing that will make you content, is the one thing you can’t have when feeling depressed? It feels like the illness is laughing at you, knowing full well that its stopping you from having the one thing you need. This cruel contradiction is a source of great frustration and despondency, that consequently can only lead to further feelings of hopelessness and regret.

As this article proposes, and as I touched upon earlier, loneliness is not just the product of finding oneself physically alone or isolated. Mark Rowland advocates that “many of us have experienced loneliness in the context of a busy office or lively party. It is about quality of relationships, not just quantity. And we now know that loneliness has significant implications for our mental health.” I can regularly feel detached or withdrawn when sat at my desk, on the tube, out for drinks, or at a party. For me personally the physical loneliness isn’t the most prevalent adversity, by virtue of the fact that I’ve never been a big socialiser, and cherish the quiet life and my own company. For me it’s the internal loneliness which is gut wrenching, and which drains me of all hope, motivation and strength. When you are feeling desolate and hopeless, seeing something as simple as friends laughing, a couple kissing, or a family playing in the park can spark such strong emotions within, and such a deep yearning to have what they possess, and to feel like you belong, that it can be as infuriating as it is melancholic.

More than ever I crave that one strong connection, that person who I can love and who can love me in return for who I am, as I feel that only then can I truly be happy. It recent months it has felt closer than it ever has been, but my negative disposition always feeds the notion of being ‘too good to be true’. One consideration that I have attempted to heed, but yet which still challenges me and holds me back, is the concept of loving oneself. I have always had little or no confidence in myself, and how others view me, and at times I have felt worthless and unlovable. However it has slowly begun to dawn on me that the only way to find love elsewhere is to first love who you are, as how can you expect someone else to love you if you are unable to? Whilst it’s a challenge, and I’m not close to embracing the philosophy fully as yet, I’m always mindful of Patricia Fry’s following words, which I will finish with:

“An intimate relationship does not banish loneliness. Only when we are comfortable with who we are can we truly function independently in a healthy way, can we truly function within a relationship. Two halves do not make a whole when it comes to a healthy relationship: it takes two wholes.”