Life with no Parole

The last 7 days have been tortuous. I’ve found myself locked in a mental prison and have found no way of escaping, despite banging on the bars until my hands were red raw. I don’t know how to overcome this pain, as it feels like this prison only offers up life with no parole as its sentence.

This isn’t related to not being in work at the moment due to redundancy, although admittedly that has taken away my support group. In fact the first week or so after finishing work I was absolutely fine. I had started a creative writing course, was going to some career workshops, and met a couple of friends for a catch up. Like the flicking of a switch it all turned on its head a week ago, and ever since I have been racked with guilt, hopelessness and feelings that the pain in my heart will never recede. The waves of anxiety and depression that sweep over me are like nausea, and while I try my best to distract my mind, this is only a temporary measure, and its not long before the thoughts have burrowed their way back in.

More than worrying about any pain I feel myself, I worry more that my illness isolates me from those people I care about, which is why I try so hard to garner and maintain friendships. Maybe too hard. I realise that being friends with someone with a mental illness is probably no fun, and my biggest fear is losing people because of it. Why would someone want to associate with someone who often cancels things last minute, who goes through low moods where they can barely communicate, and who constantly asks for reassurance. Why would someone want to stand by someone who can become obsessed and preoccupied by a few words uttered, reading into it all kinds of scenarios and meanings, with only the most disasterous ones being taken as the truth?

I’m directionless and bereft. I’m regretful of the past, and pessimistic of the future. I’m in a massive city and yet feel deeply alone. I feel jealous, yet ashamed, guilty, yet confused why, and wanting love, but incapable of grasping it.

This week is Mental Health Awareness week, and while attempting to combat this worldwide epidemic is a massive undertaking which is unlikely to be defeated in my lifetime, anyone can make a difference in the smallest way. If you know someone struggling, know that you can be make a difference, even if its just asking someone how they are. They will probably lie to you and say they are fine, but know that inside they are grateful to have been asked.

‘Cause I’d love to feel love but I can’t stand the rejection
I hide behind my jokes as a form of protection
I thought I was close but under further inspection
It seems I’ve been running in the wrong direction

The Wrong Direction – Passenger

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Fragility of the Balance

The fragility of mental health is so finely balanced that it can take only a small thing to shift the balance and cause the scales to tilt one way or the other. It can take a feather to tip the scales downwards, but a 100 tonne weight is needed to pull them back up level again.

I’ve always tried to live my life as kind person, not just because that’s how I think we are supposed to act, but because that’s how I want to live my life. For me the greatest feeling is making someone laugh, or smile or just be happy. For all of the uncontrollable issues I have in my mind, I am able to control how I interact with others. I just wish I had control over my mind. I had a panic attack this afternoon, and am still going through it, and thought I would describe the feelings I’m experiencing, as it’s a lot harder to remember after the event.

  • A sudden feeling that my heart is going to beat out of my chest.
  • Feeling sick, nauseous and like my whole body is vibrating.
  • A sense of doom and thinking that I have messed things up permanently, and that there is no hope on the horizon.
  • A feeling of complete exhaustion and yet at the same time being completely on edge and alert.
  • Tightness of breath and a feeling as though someone is clamped around my chest, suffocating me like a boa constrictor.
  • Stomach cramps and a stabbing pain in the tummy.
  • A complete sense of loneliness, but also a need to isolate myself totally. This can happen in a heartbeat: one minute feeling ok, and the next like my guts are being wrenched out.
  • Social isolation and letting down others. I missed a gig tonight that I had been looking forward to for a while.
  • A wish to go back in time and undo past wrongs.

It’s impossible to fully decribe what it’s like in a few bullet points. When in the midst of an attack of anxiety or depression you honestly feel like you are never going to get out of it or be ok again. Being rationale you know that isn’t the case, but when in the moment rationality is not a skill you possess.

I’ve had a complex relationship with people through my life. On the one hand I have always been shy, lacking in confidence, and tending to lead a fairly solitary life. On the other hand people are everything, and those that I care about are what help me get through the difficult times. I’ve always found it challenging to make and maintain lasting bonds and friendships (even at nursery school I apparently stuck to myself, and didn’t want to interact). Therefore, those people that I do befriend, especially later in life, become so important to me. And I recognise the precariousness of those friendships because I realise how important they are. I have always been someone who shies away from conflict or argument, as I hate the thought of upsetting people. While it’s not pleasant if someone upsets me, at least the only person affected is myself. But the thought of upsetting someone else is crushing. I think my illness may sometimes make me blind to how I act or behave, and while it doesn’t even cross my mind that I may have done something wrong, or crossed a boundary or been insensitive, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. If I have ever done that unwittingly to someone, it was not intentional, and would have caused me prolonged guilt and sadness when I thought this was the case. All I can say is sorry from the bottom of my heart. I’m not making an excuse, but it’s the part of my brain that I’m trying to fight that was responsible, not the part I am trying to save.

I find wisdom and meaning in music, and these words from Frank Turner pretty much sum up the difficulties of realities versus aspirations.

“But I don’t want to spend the whole of my life indoors
Laying low, waiting on the next storm
I don’t want to spend the whole of my life inside
I wanna step out, and face the sunshine”

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.

84 Too Many

Up until Friday last week I felt fine, relaxed, at ease, almost hopeful. I was lulled into a false sense of security, believing that maybe I would be able to have a restful weekend, especially as I had done my long run on Thursday, and so I didn’t have the stress of doing that on Saturday morning. However, by about 6.30pm on Friday, I was feeling rock bottom again. It came out of nowhere, like a train erupting from a darkened tunnel, and hit me hard in the gut. I was dazed. Where had this come from, and what had caused it? Well that’s the point; it comes from nowhere, with no warning, and with an unrelenting single-mindedness. It also seems to come just at the moment when you think that things may be getting better, or when you feel you have escaped the Black Dog. As if it would let you do that.

It didn’t affect my ability to achieve the things I needed to do: short run, cooking, cleaning, washing etc. If anything it made me a slightly hyper, unable to sit still and relax for more than 10 minutes, ensuring that come Monday morning I was feeling considerably unrested. Even sleep couldn’t offer a respite, as I found myself tossing and turning, and being flooded with anxiety, struggling to keep my head above the surface, and wishing that it would just leave me alone.

In under 4 weeks time I will at last be running the London Marathon, and all of the months of training will finally be put to the test. I’ve found the last few months extremely tough, and training for a marathon has a knack of mirroring the symptoms of depression: both physical and mental. The physical sensation of legs feeling like lead, and heart hammering to escape the chest, mirrors the feelings and sensations that come with crippling anxiety and debilitating depression. Similarly the mental strain of pushing yourself to run another mile, without capitulating to the temptation of stopping and giving in, is an apt reflection of when you feel that you don’t have anything else to give mentally, and when there is nothing left in the tank, and the mental struggle has become too much and too overpowering.

For anyone who watched ITV’s This Morning today, you will have seen its main feature revolved around mental health, and involved 84 sculptures being adorned the roof of the ITV building. These statues were part of ‘Project 84’, an art installation from US street artist Mark Jenkins, to raise awareness of the fact that 84 men take their life each week in the UK. It was quite a powerful sight as I walked in to work, almost uncomfortable in its starkness, but if it gets people talking then it’s done it’s job. Sometimes you need a shock and awe approach in order to get through to people.

I have to try to remember the reasons why I’m running the Marathon. It’s not just to raise money, but to raise awareness and get people talking about mental health. In its most simplest form, it’s about trying to live in a world where as few people as possible feel like I did at 6.30pm on Friday. It’s also about trying create a society where people affected by mental illness can see another way out. 84 men taking their own lives per week in the UK is 84 too many. That figure doesn’t take into account the number of women who are driven to suicide, and those men and women from around the world.

I hate the fact that I feel the way I do. I also hate the fact that I’m not alone in feeling this way. Whilst common experience should in theory engender a sense of unity, it actually makes me feel deeply sad that this silent epidemic of poor mental health is spreading its way throughout society, and the stark truth that 84 is going to become 184 if things continue in the way they are. We must do better.

If you can donate towards my run I would be incredibly grateful, and it will make a huge difference: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/james-wiffen

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

Screen Shot 2018-03-11 at 12.01.39

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.

A Fractured Mind

The last two or three weeks have been my worst of the year so far. I feel like I’m in a never-ending dream from which I want to wake up from, unable to live each day in the present, instead seeing everything as though through a frosted window. As usual there is no specific cause of the downward spiral, or at least none that I can recognise. Sometimes there may be a tiny unrelated thing that happens (something I see, something I think, or something someone says) that may subconsciously act as a catalyst, but often there isn’t even this straw to clutch at as a way of explaining what is going on. If consciously or subconsciously there is a cause of my mental state, then I think of it as a tiny stone that creates a small crack in the windscreen. That crack might start off small and insignificant, but it then highlights a weakness in the rest of the glass, and before you know it the entire windscreen is shattered. The stone is irrelevant, or often unrelated, and it merely precipitates the already weak glass in succumbing to destruction.

Why now has the depression and anxiety got hold of me again? I haven’t been off work sick at all for over 6 months, and therefore why does the inevitable always happen and I find myself getting dragged down again? I think firstly, it’s the time of year. Not the weather or the darkness, as I have always preferred this season over the long summer months. It’s more the Christmas build-up, along with my birthday, that I always seem to struggle with. The weeks leading up to Christmas are full of celebrations, parties, get together and so on. I find these extremely difficult, and they always leave me feeling down, isolated, and empty, as well as inciting heightened anxiety before, during and after. It’s not that I don’t want to enjoy this period (Christmas has always been my favourite time of year), but I think this stretch of time (which coincides with my birthday) provokes in me, again consciously or subconsciously, a reflection on another year passing, another 12 months where my illness hasn’t got any better, and where I haven’t succeeded in the personal life milestones that I want to achieve. This period can act as a trigger to self-rumination and contemplation on how I see myself when compared to others, and in turn how I predict they see me, which is no doubt hampered by the proliferation of social media.

It’s also a time of year where everyone seems to have fun, let loose and enjoy themselves. This only serves to highlight how I am unable to mirror these emotions and reactions, and how any party or celebratory event always leaves me feeling sad and empty afterwards. It’s not merely the anxiety of being in these large gatherings or events, it’s more the fact that I desperately want to be like everyone else and able to have a good time and enjoy myself, whereas in fact I feel like I’m standing outside a window, looking inwards at everybody else, always prevented from feeling part of it due to my mental make up. The alternative, which is often taken, is to lock myself away on my own, but this brings it’s own problems in the form of loneliness, isolation and regret. It’s a lose-lose situation.

Despite all of these possible reasons for this particular ‘episode’, it’s also a fair assumption to say that I’m down now just because I am. In many ways the illness doesn’t conform to particular time periods, or months of the year, it simply comes and goes as and when it feels like it. It’s not as though it only happens at this time every year. Maybe its just the fact that when it does happen the feelings are made all the worse by the knowledge that it’s supposed to be such an enjoyable time of the year, and the sense of missing out inevitably rears its ugly head. It’s the whole chicken and the egg argument. Does the depression cause the difficult time of year, or does the time of year cause the difficult period of depression.

As I sit writing this my heart is racing, as it always seems to be in the height of a depressive episode. It’s partly the anxiety, and partly the 3 coffees I’ve had to try to stay awake. I was close to ringing the Samaritans earlier, but just couldn’t face talking to a stranger, and having to explain to someone things that even I don’t understand, like why I’m feeling like this. It’s the sensation of being on my own (even when surrounded by people) that gets me the most, and the realisation, as another year of my life comes to a close, that the illness has made me unlovable, probably indefinitely. If only my windscreen was stronger, and the small stones were launched less frequently, then maybe the breaking and rebuilding of my mind wouldn’t have to happen so often.

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.