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.

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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.

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.

 

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”.

 

 

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.

Swamped

All around me are familiar faces
Worn out places, worn out faces
Bright and early for their daily races
Going nowhere, going nowhere
Their tears are filling up their glasses
No expression, no expression
Hide my head I want to drown my sorrow
No tomorrow, no tomorrow

Mad World – Michael Andrews & Gary Jules

—————-

How do you feel?

Lie: A little down to be honest, but I’ll be ok. Probably just the time of year.

Truth: I feel like my insides are tearing themselves to pieces. I feel like I’m standing on a stage facing a thousand people and my heart is going to burst right out of my chest. I feel like things aren’t, have never been, or never will be OK. I feel like I want to bawl my eyes out until there are no more tears left to shed. I feel like no one understands, none more so than myself. I feel like I am destined to die alone. I feel like I want to get into bed under the covers and never have to get out again. I feel like I want to throw the towel in. I feel like the light from the centre of the sun could not vanquish the darkness I feel inside.

It goes without saying that I’m not in a great place right now. I’ve been down this road enough times to know that eventually it will subside. But I’ve also been down this road enough times to know that it will happen again…and again. The resolve breaks with this knowledge. How can you expect to drag yourself out of a swamp, when you know that you will be back down in it’s muddy depths within a matter of weeks or months. It becomes too easy to give in and stop trying to pull yourself free.

Time has become a large focus. It’s a thought process of contradictions, on the one hand wanting the day to rush by and be over with, whilst on the other hand being scared witless at how fast the years are rolling by. Being 30 terrifies me, not because of the age itself, but because the milestone reminds me of how much of my life I have wasted, or rather my illness has wasted. I want to go back, and have another shot at things. I find myself not having experienced, or having dealt with certain things that I should have in my teens. I can’t help feeling out of place, and not belonging, and terrified of the past, present and future. On the one hand I want to run away and hide from the world, and on the other hand I want to shout from the rooftops ‘please like me’. I simply don’t know what to do. All I can do is get back up again in the morning and carry on. The Garden of Eden must be out there somewhere. I’m just too tangled up in the undergrowth to see it.