“Dream a Little Dream of Me”

“There are two tragedies in life.
One is not to get your heart’s desire.
The other is to get it”.

George Bernard Shaw

This utterance from George Bernard Shaw has always been one of my favourite quotes. Despite being relatively simple, it is so multi-layered and its meaning can be deciphered in so many different ways, that it’s much more complex on closer inspection. I believe Shaw is suggesting that whilst failing to achieve what you most desire in life is certainly a tragedy, it is equally tragic to get what you desire, as then you have nothing left to dream of achieving. This then leads to a potential realisation that what you had supposed would be your hearts desire did not in fact fill the hole inside of you as you had hoped.

This concept reflects how I see depression in many ways. The first half of the quote is obvious in its relatability, as a key feature of depression is a yearning for something you don’t have (or don’t believe you have), such as friends, relationships, a purpose, inner peace, hope, a future etc. However, it is the second part that causes more consternation, and that is the notion of achieving something only to realise that it was not the solution to your problems that you had assumed it would be, and this in turn causes a perpetual sense of hopelessness to infest its way into the mind.

For example, if you find yourself in a mire of internal blackness and deep mental lethargy, then all you desire is to come out the other side of this turmoil, and feel yourself again. However, once this has been achieved, there is no sense of celebration or relief, as you have merely reached level ground, and not the joyous peak of the mountain that you had dreamed of scaling. The realities of what you desire are never what you hope they will be, and I think that this would suggest that what makes us happy is not something that we dream of or predict, as we could never conjure up something in our minds that would not ultimately let us down. Happiness must come from somewhere we don’t expect, and its unpredictability and stealthy approach is what makes it work. As John Barrymore says, “Happiness often sneaks in through a door you didn’t know you left open”

The very nature of depression is its refusal to allow you to recognise success, instead it finds great pleasure in berating you for your failures. For instance, in the last 10 years I have reached various milestones (moving to London, making friends, good job etc), but these achievements are not allowed to rise to the surface, as the realisation of the deep unhappiness that still exists ensures that this is mission impossible. A builder creating a house from scratch doesn’t celebrate when he has put in the walls, as the house is still missing a roof, and is therefore not complete, and not whole. This is what depression feels like. This notion of disappointment in achieving (or failing to achieve) pre-determined goals is also relatable to the more mundane aspects of mental illness. For example, the optimism that burrows under the skin when you are offered a glimmer of hope (therapy, medication, exercise based relief), is contrasted with the tragic sense of dejection when it fails to work out as you had hoped. You pin your hopes on something so strongly, that even if it works to a small extent, it can never live up to the idealised vision that you create in your mind. You so frequently deliberate and fatasise about what happiness could be, that how could that ever live up to expectations? The problem with dreaming is that you eventually wake up.

So what is worse, not getting your hearts desire, or getting what you most desire and being disappointed? The mind of the depressive concludes that those are the only two options. But surely there can be a third path, surely there is away of reaching that peak, and not being disappointed with the view. For me that pathway seems a million miles away. The very existence of a mountain means it can be climbed, but whilst I can picture vividly in my mind what could be my source of happiness, it neither seems reachable or sustainable to me at this time. Not only do I convince myself that it will never happen, but even it did, how could it meet the expectations of a lifetimes worth of dreaming? All that can be done is to try and cling onto Alexandre Dumas’s words,

“All human wisdom is summed up in two words; wait and hope”

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Back To Routine

The first week back to work after 6 weeks absence was always going to be challenging (physically and mentally), despite the fact that it has become an all too familiar hurdle to overcome. The nerves the night before were inevitable, but once I had walked through the door the following morning it felt as though I hadn’t been away, and by lunchtime the initial nerves had all but been extinguished. I predict that the reason for this straightforward transition back into work is a combination of the great support from colleagues/friends at work, and also as an inevitable consequence of the mental stimulation required at work acting as a form of distraction from the thoughts and feelings I had been enduring over the previous weeks and months.

It’s not all been rosy though. The darkness still creeps back in when I’m alone, or when a conscious or unconscious trigger reignites the feelings of depression and anxiety, in turn causing the reemergence of the habitual sensation of standing upon the precipice. It’s perhaps not helped that my return back to full time work has lead to an overwhelming sense of exhaustion, and the mental and physical fatigue as always is both a cause and effect of low mood. The combination of the return to work/commuting and the effects of the medication are doubtlessly responsible for this lassitude, not to mention the fact that the anxiety and depression cause their own form of tiredness as a result of the strain put upon body and mind. This weekend I have therefore just crashed out and been unable to do very much at all, even having to cut short a gym session on Saturday as I had no strength in my body whatsoever.

But despite these issues, its unquestionably positive that I’m back at work, both in terms of as a way of focusing my mind, but also as a facilitation for being around friends and people that I care about and reaping the rewards that this provides. And the adverse feelings mentioned above notwithstanding, I’m in a relatively stable place, and my spirits are higher than they have been for a while. But I do continue to worry about how I will manage the fatigue, and more importantly at how easy it is to be attacked by the ‘black dog’ when my mind lets its guard down for even a second. At the moment his attacks are less severe, and less frequent, but I can constantly feel his presence inside me, and it’s incredibly disheartening to face the reality that another bad attack will inevitably come, whether that be in a week, a month or a year.

Exercising the mind

In the last few weeks I have become an addict. I cannot go one day without my fix, and each day I need more than the previous day as my body has become tolerant and needs a higher dose to produce results. Thankfully this pursuit that I am referring to is simply exercise.

During the last few years I have joined the gym on at least 5 occasions, and whilst initially attending 2 or 3 times a week, within a few months (6 if I’m lucky) I have quit, telling myself that I don’t have time at the moment, and I’ll rejoin at a later date. The positive effects of exercise are universally paraded around to the point that its nauseating, but you can’t get away from the fact that it is good for body, mind and soul.

For me the physical effects of the exercise are incidental, an inevitable side issue that I don’t spend a great deal of time concerning myself with. It’s true to say that for someone like myself who has zero self confidence, extremely low self-esteem and a perception of other people viewing me negatively, the idea of getting into some kind of shape certainly appeals. Whilst mental health is so often out of your hands, you can’t use that excuse for physical health, and if I could look myself in the mirror and with anything other than revulsion or disappointment, then that would certainly be a welcome change. However it’s the mental effects that interest me, rather than the physical benefits.

Engaging in an intense workout has two benefits. Firstly, during the session itself the sheer act of pushing my body to its limit leaves virtually no energy reserves or mental space to focus on other worrys, thoughts or feelings. You simply exist in the moment, concentrating only on putting one foot in front of the other, or pedaling that extra few miles, trying with all your might to not only reach the pain barrier, but to burst through it and come out the other side. I don’t listen to music at the gym because I enjoy the fact that it is the only quiet time of the day within my mind, and I can temporarily put everything else on hold, and just exist in that moment.

The other aspect is the temporary euphoria that shrouds the body after a work out. Exercise produces serotonin, the chemical in the brain that affects mood and of which a person with depression has a diminished supply, and which antidepressants similarly try to increase. This clearly attests to the positive feelings post-exercise, but the problem lies in the reference to it being ‘temporary’. Within an hour at most (in my personal experience) the effects have worn off, and the the thoughts and feelings that have taken a brief rest begin to infest their way back in, burying deep into every pore, and ensuring that any sense of euphoria is all but a distant dream. The exercise induced tiredness, added to the medication and mental maelstrom induced exhaustion, precipitates the depression coming back all the more easily, as the flimsy barriers have little strength to resist.

Exercise, like alcohol or drugs, only provides temporary relief, and can only numb the pain or fill the emotional gap for so long. Whilst exercise is obviously a resoundingly positive pursuit, when compared to alcohol or drugs, as a way of dealing with pain, it still only provides a short term fix. This is obviously not the case for people that engage in physical exertion for fitness or appearance reasons as the results can last long term, but if you are pursuing exercise whilst praying it will help with your mental health (as I have)  then it can be only a diminutive stop gap between two difficult moments, rather than a way of vanquishing those troubling moments altogether. It is generally considered that people who are addicted to alcohol or drugs are trying to fill a void in their life and also attempting to escape their reality. For me the exercise isn’t an answer to my internal pain, but merely a way of coping until an answer does present itself (should that day ever happen). If for an hour every day I can feel slightly free, and distracted enough to be able to briefly put my anxieties and frenzied mind aside, then I will keep doing it as an hour is better than nothing. But I cannot bring myself to the resolution of this being much more than highly constrained positivity when there are still 23 hours in the day to feel lonely, insignificant and bereft of hope. But beggars can’t be choosers.

“Things That Stop You Dreaming”

At 8 years old I dreamed of being a Power Ranger, at 11 years old I dreamed of being an airplane pilot, at 14 I dreamed of being a professional footballer, at 18 I dreamed of being a filmmaker, and now at 29….I don’t dream of of anything anymore. Dreams are for people with hope, optimism and those who have a light burning inside. When you are bereft of hope, riddled with pessimism, and when the light has flickered out, all you are left with is an emptiness inside that can only be filled with futility. To dream is to look forward, whereas an inability to dream is to look backwards, analysing past times, and occasions in your life when the impossible seemed possible, and the future was something to look forward to, rather than something that has slipped by. You end up questioning what you could have done differently in the past, rather than looking forward to moments that have yet to arrive, and dreaming becomes something insubstantial that only happens in the period between sleeping and waking, and not as the real life substantive ability to fantasise about an imagined future.

I no longer have any hopes or aspirations for the future, which is a cruel way of living because without hope, we have nothing. Occasionally something will come along that offers a chance of some kind of positivity or redemption, but more often than not its failure to progress or come to fruition leads to a deeper feeling of frustration, anxiety and self criticism, because hope being offered and then snatched away is often worse than having no hope at all. It’s important to re-emphasise that I don’t set out to be melodramatic or negative in my blogs, I simply aim to be completely honest in how I’m feeling, without sugar coating my experiences or feelings, and it’s usually when I’m at a low ebb that a topic for discussion comes to mind.

If I reflect upon the past, I undoubtedly view it through rose tinted glasses, and often with an inaccurate representation of my of my true feelings at the time. Just as I predominantly focus upon the negatives of my current life, I also concentrate on the imagined positives of my younger self; an idealised version of myself as a young boy, with few responsibilities or commitments, with many possibilities lying ahead, and still having that belief that I could conquer the world. However, if I actually concentrate upon the realities of that time, then I can conclude that I wasn’t happy even when I was younger, and if anything, I was in a worse place as the anxiety and depression were new, confusing, and uncontrollable, added to the fact that a young persons hormones are already all over the place. And while its true that I hoped for a fulfilling and optimistic future, I felt stuck within a prison of my own mind and anxiety, going many years without socialising at all outside of my family, consequently ensuring that this became more difficult to overcome in later life. Reaching a point such as I find myself at now seemed far fetched and laughable, and this bothered me a great deal. The ability to live on my own in London, whilst holding down a job, were surely the thing of dreams, but they ended up being a reality. This therefore should be a reason to view the current me as superior to my younger self. But once again Depression proves itself a devious master, ensuring that its unwilling servant can only focus on the things that are harmful to their mental state, rather than devoting any time to those things which may help it.

Time surely plays a significant part in the process, as inevitably we have more dreams and aspirations when we are 10 years old than when we are 40. I genuinely cannot find anything inside of myself to act as a guiding light for my life, something to sail towards in the knowledge that the journey will be worth it for whats waiting at the destination. Now the most I hope for is to get through the day with the least amount of anxiety or emotional failings as possible, and the this fact alone is a telling sentiment. I want to have more than that, to be able to dream again like that 8 year old boy who wanted to be a Power Ranger. I want to be able to wake up with expectation rather than resignation. I want to be able to love, to laugh and to make a difference. I want to be able to dream that the future is not in the past, and that 29 is not the end of things as it feels now, but merely the beginning. Depression is like wearing black tinted glasses…your view on the world is restricted to darkness, shadows and an and an absence of light to guide the way. When you have worn the glasses for so long, they become part of the face, rather than an artificial extension of it, and you feel like you will never be able to see the world through your own eyes ever again. Dreaming becomes a dream itself, and you are left pondering the following words of Mark Twain, immersing yourself in both its supposed truth, but also its apparent impossibility to achieve:

“20 years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

 

 

“Flying High and Falling Low”

Written at 19:00 on 30th April 2016

Saturday morning, 3 day weekend, sun shining outside…this should be a cause of positivity, enthusiasm, and a generally relaxed and happy vibe. So why was it that I sat for at least an hour at the table just staring at the walls, thoughts bumping around in my mind, my heart racing, my body racked with exhaustion, and my nerves shattered? Of course, the first question you may (quite rightly) ask is, ‘why on earth didn’t you just get out of the flat and do something to take your mind off things’. Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. The biggest need becomes the biggest fear and an insurmountable mountain. The ‘bubble’ (in this case the flat) becomes a safety net, one in which you don’t willingly want to exit from. In the afternoon I went out to try and do the exact thing that the aforementioned advice recommends, but even a short trip to the shops left me yearning for the protective environment of my living room. I tried…and failed. The mountain loomed too high, and I was stuck at base camp.

A significant effect of depression and anxiety is a feeling of lethargy and complete lack of enthusiasm. The idea of going out to the cinema, the park or the shops doesn’t offer any sense of pleasure, and sadly reiterates how this illness removes any measure of enjoyment or satisfaction from the things in life that should make it all worthwhile. Upcoming events, trips or activities that I have arranged and paid for are causing that initial prickly feeling of anxiety and fearful worry, to the extent that I’m already starting to talk myself out of doing them, assuring myself that I can afford to lose the money, and convincing myself that ‘its for the best’ as I can remain in my bubble, my safety net. This has been the story of the last 15 years or so.

Fast forward to Saturday evening and I’m sat back at the table (this time accompanied by music to try and break the silence), having cancelled plans for the evening yet again, and possibly burnt more bridges, and the feelings of guilt, frustration, anger, sadness and a massive perception of weakness aimed at myself come crashing down. All I want to do is sleep…and have a break from the thoughts, a respite, and much needed rest, but I know that the ‘black dog’ isn’t kind, and will instead serve me up another restless and sleepless night. Sometimes I tell myself that being in my own ‘bubble’ is necessary because without surrounding myself with others, I can block out the existence of people engaging in all the things I yearn for: loving, being loved, exploring, hoping, laughing, crying, living out their dreams on a daily basis. The pain I feel when perceiving people carrying out these basic of human actions and behaviours leads to such heartache, as I want so desperately to be part of it. I’m not naïve or insensitive enough to suggest that everyone is happy, as of course there is much suffering out there, and everyone has their demons, and can fall into a routine of monotony. But I crave to be able to break free, to throw of the shackles holding me back, and not look back in 50 years and realise that I allowed my depression to define my life.

I’m not trying to be overly melodramatic, or fishing for any sympathy (as I don’t deserve any), I’m simply expressing the facts of what is going on inside my head, and what I’m thinking and feeling, as honesty is one thing that I am completely at ease with. Unlike in previous blogs, I can’t find it in myself to offer any words of advice or analysis of what needs to be done to get out of these dips. This time I haven’t got the energy. The constant cycle of believing things are on track, only to be enveloped by the inevitable slide downwards have broken down my resolve, and left me with a great sense of emptiness, that I can’t see any chance of being filled. As I sat writing this a my ipod shuffled onto a song that struck at my heart, as the lyrics epitomised how I was feeling:

Please
I’ve had enough
Please
I’ve had enough
In circles I’m turning
From this world I’m burning
Tell me what happens after this

Somedays I’m flying high, I’m falling low
Somedays I made of gold, I made of stone
Somedays I’m flying high, I’m falling low
Somedays I made of gold, I made of stone

Link to track

 

 

Missed Opportunities

As is my nature, and the essence of my illness, I often find myself contemplating the past, and analysing certain events . This can take the form of nostalgic trips back to childhood, or recollecting the stress and pressure that exam season created. The most significant subject of my reminiscences is that of the many opportunities and possibilities that my illness has taken away from me. As repeatably touched upon in my blogs, depression and anxiety purposefully garner negative thinking patterns, and as a consequence, these missed opportunities become the focus of the mind, rather than any achievements or positive events that may have occurred. Even a nostalgic ramble down memory lane is not immune to these negative thoughts, as a happy memory induces hypothetical questions such as “why can’t I be happy now?”, or “why can’t I go back to those days when I had everything ahead of me?”. Its these questions that force their way to the forefront of my mind, rather than allowing a joyful recollection of a happier time.

The aforementioned missed opportunities take  a variety of forms, and conjure up a multitude of emotions; regret, dejection, frustration and a deep sense of sadness. I have arranged many activities or events in the past, such as going to music gigs, school reunions, nights out with friends, and trips away. When arranging them I was full of enthusiasm, and a significant sense of optimism. However, I’ve lost count of the number of occasions that as the event has got closer, I have canceled or said I’m ill, just because the anxiety was too much to bear. I even returned after less than 24 hours from a music festival as it got too much for me, and I needed to escape from the situation that was causing me so much discomfort. This leads to a deep sense of guilt for letting people down, as well as shame that I am unable to achieve even these most basic of feats.

Jobs and career opportunities have also been affected. When I was in my mid to late teens I quit a couple of jobs after only a few days as a result of being so riddled with anxiety, and needing to shut myself away from people, which of course had the detrimental consequence of it becoming even more  difficult to push myself out and try and conquer my fears. The fact that this has improved significantly since my late teens/early twenties is certainly encouraging, and I’ve achieved things that I would never have dreamed of being able to; moving on my own to London, holding down long term jobs, making friends and interacting with people on a daily basis. Whilst these are the most basic of human endeavors, for me they are significant achievements, and certainly seemed a million miles away when I left school.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking missed opportunities involve people, such as friendships that dwindled away because I wasn’t able to battle through the anxiety pain barrier, and took the easier way out of hiding myself away. Also there has been the inability to make the deeper connections of a relationship which may have been that spark that could have changed the course of my life, and set me on that road to happiness and fulfillment.

Whilst I have admitted to myself that things are undeniably better than they were 10 or 15 years ago, and the James from 2016 is unrecognisable from the one in 2000, the illness still means I can only present myself with regrets, and ponder the ‘what if’s’. If I hadn’t had this illness, could I have achieved more, fulfilled my potential, made longer lasting connections with people, and been able to enjoy the moments in life that make it worth living? Of course any rational person would say that you can’t do anything about the past, and should instead focus on all of the opportunities that the future holds, and they of course would be correct. However my brain is not set up to find that an easy way of thinking, and I am constantly dragged against my will into the past, and to the conclusion that I have missed out on the best years of my life.

“Life is short. Love someone, spread happiness, laugh as much as possible. Forgive and forget, live the life without regret.”

The above quote is from Anurag Prakash Ray. I see it as a description of the ideal, the holy grail that everyone aspires to find, and I postulate that if I fulfilled all of those suggested life goals, then I would be a step closer to finding happiness…in fact we all would. Alas that the ‘Black Dog’ refuses to make it easy for me. But that won’t stop me trying.

Holding The Black Dog At Bay

I’m very conscious that most, if not all, of my blog posts have been scribed when I have been feeling down or hopeless. One of the many facets of the illness is that you focus on the negatives, and ignore any positives, and therefore I guess its inevitable that the ratio of optimistic versus pessimistic blog posts is so one sided. Someone pointed out to me the other day that it would be useful to note down what happens when I’m feeling more positive and upbeat, as this will be a valuable record to look back on when I’m feeling particularly low. What was happening on that day which caused me to feel more positive? Why was I not feeling as discouraged as usual? Can I use any of my findings and put them into action when I’m feeling especially depressed or anxious?

I’m not entirely sure of the reasons for my more upbeat state of mind in the last day or two, but I can hazard a guess at a number of factors:

(1) My bronchitis, which has been dragging my down for the last few weeks, has finally started to subside. I’ve felt dreadful for the duration of the illness, as its been difficult to breathe, and the cough has been intensely painful. As with getting over any illness, you can’t help but feel positive that you have seen the back of it.

(2) The aforementioned bronchitis has ensured that I have been unable to visit the gym at all for the last few weeks, and therefore I’ve been feeling decidedly inactive and restless. Today I was able to return, and had an intensive workout, which made me feel less guilty about the lack of exercise recently, and also precipitated the inevitable good vibes that come from the release of endorphins.

(3) Last night I met some good friends who I haven’t seen in a long time. It was a lovely evening, and we laughed, joked and reminisced about past times. It reinforced to me the importance of friends, and interacting with other people. Whilst the illness often negates this basic human characteristic, it proves that if it can be achieved, then the results are immensely positive, and allows you to fight back at the illness. Depression doesn’t want to you to have any semblance of happiness, and consequently if you do have a moment of contentment or hopefulness, you are in a sense defeating it, albeit until the next time it strikes.

(4) I’ve felt more of myself at work in the last few days, which is inevitable as a consequence of the previous points mentioned. Everyone I work with I consider friends, as well as colleagues, and hence when I’m feeling well in myself, and have managed to seek out some optimistic state of mind, it is a genuinely pleasurable environment to spend my time in. It helps greatly that everyone in my team knows about my illness, and thus there is no awkwardness or shying away from the realities of it.

(5) I’ve now got a few days off, and am looking forward to participating in some of the activities that I enjoy, but which depression effectively strips any pleasure from. Simple things like reading, going to the cinema, working out, going for a walk in the park. Points 1-4 in this list certainly contribute to being able to do this, as well as other factors that I probably don’t even recognise. Normally when the weekend swings around there is initially the inevitable ‘Friday Feeling’ that everyone experiences, but as soon as Saturday morning raises its head, the usual feelings of lethargy, hopelessness, lonliness and anxiety come rushing through the door. It’s nice therefore to actually be able to look forward to a few days rest, and hopefully a time to recharge the batteries, as the last few weeks have been physically and emotionally draining.

This is my no means an exhaustive list, but it will hopefully give me something to reflect upon when the inevitable slide downwards happens. Because it will. It may be in a few weeks time, or a few days time, or even in a few hours time. There is no stopping it. The doors have been boarded up for now, and the shutters on the windows pulled down. But depression is persistent, strong, and stubborn. The only thing that you can do is try and enjoy the moments when its at arms bay, and quite possibly the more times that this is achieved, the more tired and bored the ‘Black Dog’ will become. Maybe one day it will leave forever, its tail between its legs. But for now if I can at least hold it at bay for a few days, then that surely is a positive. I’ll take that any day of the week.