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.

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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.

Katelyn

At the weekend a news story went viral about a 12 year old American girl taking her own life and live streaming the whole event on social media. Katelyn Nicole Davis from Georgia recorded a 42 minute video in her backyard on 30th December, featuring a heartbreaking explanation to camera as to why she was deciding to end her life, followed by her apparently hanging herself from a tree in the fading daylight. The news story focused upon the fact that the tragic event unfolded live on the internet, with the potential ramifications of this, and the inevitable difficulties in attempting to take the video down, as there is no legal obligation to do so (although the moral obligation is undisputed). Whilst the manner of her suicide being carried out for the world to see is clearly a significant concern, it was not what stuck with me when reading the multitude of articles that sprang up on Saturday. Clearly issues of social media and the ways that people live out their lives on the web is a big feature of society in the 21st century, and one that cannot go unanalysed. However, what concerned me more was that a 12 year old girl felt that her only option was to cut short her life, with all of it’s undeniable potential, because she believed she had nowhere else to turn to. In an age where we can put a man on the moon, travel to the other side of the world in less than 24 hours, and discover cures for natures most deadly of diseases, how can we find ourselves reading about a little girl in so much pain and anguish that her only option was to cease living?

I haven’t watched the video myself (why anyone would want to I can’t imagine), but some of the articles showed pictures and featured transcripts of her final words. Apparently she was abused mentally and physically by her step father, as well as having suffered with depression and a tendency to self harm for many years. And all that by the age of 12. It’s impossible to know exactly what was going on within her mind, and what support (if any) she was receiving from her family and friends. But what is clear is that her final words are both chilling and devastating:

“I’m sorry – I’m sorry that I’m not pretty enough…I’m sorry I came into your lives just to get out of it this quickly. I’m sorry for everything. I’m really and truly sorry for everything. But I can’t do this. I’m sorry…I’m sorry everyone. I’m sorry I let this depression get to me.”

See how many times she apologises. She has been the victim of abuse, and of a terrible illness, and yet she is the one saying sorry. Society should be apologising to Katelyn for letting her down. Depression really is such an irrational illness, which causes you to despise and blame yourself for everything. She has allowed the dark thoughts and feelings of hopelessness to infest and take over her mind, and this is something I can relate to as it is a daily challenge that is faced by many people. But what is impossible to grasp is how for a 12 year old girl these thoughts and feelings prevented her from seeing any other way out.

We live in an incredibly connected world, in which communication with people in the far reaches of the planet is possible at the touch of a button. However, this network of connectivity can further highlight the feelings of loneliness or isolation that the mentally vulnerable feel, rather than providing an outlet for compassionate consideration. The loneliest of moments are often not during times of being on ones own, but rather when one is surrounded by others, both physically or virtually, as you are privy to the kinds of human relationships or successes that you fiercely yearn for. Rather than a casual sense of longing that you may feel when alone, this becomes a source of desperate painful longing when you see these relationships existing in the real world, but just out reach.

Depression is without doubt this centuries biggest health crisis. It’s not good enough that someone may have to wait 12 or 18 months before getting therapy that may save their life. It’s not good enough that systematic child abuse goes unchallenged and unpunished. And it’s not good enough that depression plays a part in at least 50% of all suicides, and that the statistics are going in the wrong direction. I know that every time I feel that the darkness is enveloping me, or that I am not strong enough to go on coping, I will think of Katelyn. We cannot let this illness keep on killing, and we have to ask ourselves some very stark questions. Is enough being done? No. Is there a quick and obvious fix. Not really. Do we need to do something at all costs? Without question. The tragedy is that for Katelyn it is already too late.

Walking The Tightrope

Have you ever played one of those 2p coin pusher arcade games? All it takes is one little coin being pushed through a slot to cause everything else to fall apart. That sums up how I feel. Now more than ever it seems as though every day I’m walking a tightrope, and I’m one little nudge away from falling. The constantly changing mood is in many ways worse than a persistent period of feeling down, as the ability to predict what my state of mind will be from one day to the next becomes impossible.

It’s amazing how tiny things can cause the already unstable equilibrium to become seriously unbalanced: a throwaway remark from a friend, an image on facebook, a memory or thought coming to mind. It’s not these things themselves that cause the spiral downwards, as often they are meaningless, insubstantial or wrongly interpreted, but rather they act as the final little push needed to facilitate the nose dive into turmoil. When a particularly strong sea wave causes a rock face to crumble and fall into the sea, it’s not that single wave that did the damage, but rather it was the years of constant battering that caused the rock face to weaken. The last 7 days have featured the highs of laughing with friends at Christmas parties or in the office, to the lows of shutting myself in the toilets and failing to hold back the tears.

A significant cause of anxiety is a perception or concern with how others view you, and generally these preconceptions are either false, or hugely exaggerated. However, there is one person I know that truly despises me, and that is myself. I find that the loathing I have for myself is only matched by the desire I have to make others happy. It may be a cliche, but how can you expect anyone else to love you when you don’t even like yourself? More than the contempt I have for myself is the constant fear I have of it alienating friends, and all I want to do is constantly apologise for how I am to be around at times. It’s too important that I don’t lose these people…the consequences could be devastating.

As previously mentioned in other blogs this time of year is a particularly difficult one, and whilst I got through my birthday without the immediate difficulties I had anticipated (due in part to the kindness of certain friends in making the day feel special), I certainly feel the affects as a delayed reaction. As 2016 comes to a close it should present everyone with a sense of optimism for what 2017 will bring. For me if merely fills me with dread of another year of my life ticking by, and being nowhere nearer to feeling any semblance of happiness or peace. Is it really worth another year of pain? On 1st January I will have been writing this blog for 1 year, comprising almost 50 posts. The fact that from blog 1 to blog 50 I am still writing the same sorts of things is a testament to how frustrating this illness is, and epitomises how difficult it is to remain hopeful. Whilst it’s true that “to be alive is to have hope”, the longer time goes on the less alive you feel and therefore it’s not just the hope that you crave, but the feeling of being alive.

 

Trigger (Un)Happy

When finding myself in the midst of particular difficult period I often get asked ‘what triggered it this time?’ This is a perfectly legitimate question, and one that a non-sufferer would be completely justified in asking. Of course there are some obvious triggers, such as big life events like bereavements or breakups, that are bound to cause a whirlwind of emotions and a downward spiral into depression. However, for the majority of the time there are no rational or tangible triggers that precipitate the relapse; instead it appears out of the blue, like a bullet train rocketing out of a tunnel. In some instances it builds up gradually before it reaching its painful crescendo, but on other occasions it hits you full pelt in the stomach, with no warning or let up.

According to this the article Top Relapse Triggers for Depression & How to Prevent Them “the risk of recurrence — ‘relapse after full remission’ — for a person who’s had one episode of depression is 50 percent. For a person with two episodes, the risk is about 70 percent. For someone with three episodes or more, the risk rises to around 90 percent”. That statistic doesn’t provide much comfort, as clearly the chances of relapse increase with each depressive episode that occurs. Putting it bluntly, things will only get worse.

The article proceeds to suggest 3 potential trigger categories, and how they can manifest into a period of depression:

Not Following Treatment

The article proposes that “The biggest issue regarding relapse has to do with children and adults not following through on their treatment plan… this includes anything from skipping therapy sessions to missing doses of your medication to ending therapy too soon”. I can certainly relate to the negative effects of ending therapy too soon, although through no fault of my own, but rather the underfunded and oversubscribed NHS. If these support structures are not strong enough, or are fragmented and disturbed, then it undeniably ensures that a relapse is increasingly likely. The article also suggests that “while your life may involve psychotherapy, medication and the need for a protective structure that keeps your illness at bay, also realize that you have passions, desires, gifts and talents that require just as much attention.” It is all to easy for these facets of life to fall by the wayside, which consequently prolongs the negative cycle.

Ruminations

“Negative self-referential ruminations play a key role in recurrence… for example, individuals with depression tend to dwell on their (supposed) flaws and failures. They also may view neutral events with a negative lens.” Ruminations are a big deal for me, allowing my mind to dwell on my insecurities, and conjure up thoughts of sadness, hopelessness and a misguided longing for a perceived better life. This trigger is particularly problematic to tackle, as the thoughts come out of the blue, and linger sometimes for days or weeks. Unfortunately the mind cannot be switched off, and the more time you spend alone, the more the thoughts penetrate deep into the brain, eating away at you, with little or no regards to the consequences. Despite being a cliché, it’s like being trapped inside a prison, with only your thoughts as the ruthless prison guards for company.

Knowing Your Personal Vulnerabilities

“Triggers may be very specific to each individual’s situation, since all of our emotional responses are unique to some extent…learn how to recognize the who, what, whys and whens of your emotional and physical life.” For example particular dates or times of the year can prove to be difficult and act as triggers for a depressive state of mind. For me personally my birthday and Christmas are particularly troublesome as they can provoke the ruminations mentioned previously, and cause them to take hold, whilst also proliferating ideas of another year having passed by and another year when I still feel trapped in a deep well of unhappiness. Regret, frustration and sadness are emotions that become second nature. The article also notes that “If you find yourself excessively fatigued, irritable, having trouble eating or sleeping, you might be in the midst of a trigger event.”

Identifying certain triggers doesn’t really provide much assistance or solace. I sometimes have anticipated an event 8 months in advance as a potential cause of anxiety or depression, and despite this warning, it plays out exactly as I had envisioned. Plus the fact that there are so many invisible and intangible triggers at play ensures that any attempt to fight the process becomes virtually impossible. The article concludes that you “don’t measure your success living with depression on whether relapse happens or not. Instead, realize that if relapse occurs, true success comes from rising after the fall…Fall down seven times, get up eight.” The difficulty comes in the fact that falling down is so easy, but getting back up again requires reserves of energy and determination that are in very short supply.

A Silent Killer

We are currently in the midst of some important dates: yesterday was International Men’s Day, and the whole month of November is the flagship period of the Movember Foundation. What both of these events have in common is their dedication to raising awareness of men’s health, and in particular focusing upon mental health and suicide prevention. The theme for this years International Men’s Day was Stop Male Suicide, and whilst the moustache growing month of November is what is most closely associated with the Movember Foundation, it is in fact an organistion working all year round to tackle men’s health issues, including suicide prevention. The statistics on the subject are frightening. Around the world on average we lose a man to suicide every minute of every day, and three out of four suicides are men.

It’s hard to reconcile why there are such a high proportion of suicides among males. Perhaps it’s simply that men are a lot less comfortable with opening up about their feelings and emotions, and about mental health in general. There is a lot pressure within the media for men to act tough and manly, and to not show any emotion. Men may consequently feel self conscious about admitting their vulnerabilities and frailties, misguidedly believing that it depletes their levels of masculinity, and therefore makes them appear unattractive, weak and somehow inferior. It’s often been the case than men just ‘brave things out’, ‘get on with it’, and keep their emotions to themselves, because they are ‘men’, and that’s what ‘men’ do. However, the bravery comes from opening up and talking about mental health, rather than by burying it deep down under a facade of pretend happiness; a pretense which in my own personal experience results in the volcano inside consistently being at the point of eruption.

In every country in the world (bar China where its equal) the male rate of suicide is higher than that of women, and in Russia the rate of male suicides is 6 times that of women. The statistics are staggering, and its not an exaggeration to say that mental health is truly a global and silent killer. For the first 22 odd years of my life (before I first went to the doctor) I would rather have cut off my own arm than talk about what I thought was ‘my big weakness’, and the idea of recounting my experiences in a blog or to camera would have been bordering on the ridiculous. However it soon becomes apparent that the more you talk about it, the easier it does become, and with the support of those around you it can be a vital step towards changing those terrifying statistic above. I’m not saying that merely talking about mental health will solve everything, as this is far from the truth, and medication and therapy will play an important part, and there will be many bumps in the road along the way. But at least you are on the road, and haven’t felt that you have needed to leave the path as so many men and women tragically have. As a society we need put the treatment of mental health up there with cancer, and provide as much funding and study as we possibly can to make people sit up and take the illness seriously. If not, then I fear it will get a lot worse before it gets better.

Pouring money into the NHS, supporting children and young adults with mental health treatments, and funding charities like The Samaritans, Calm and Movember are undoubtedly crucial actions that need to take place. However, a simple act of asking someone how they are, or listening to them talk about how they are having a bad day, can be all that is needed to push someone into opening up, and make them realise that they are not alone. It is infinitely more difficult for someone to admit to their mental health issues when they feel that they have nobody that cares or who will listen to them. If we can make this world a place where opening up is not a challenge but merely part of life, and where the idea of depression being a stigma is a thing of the past, then we will be on the way to cultivating an environment where we can really begin to tackle this silent killer in the decades ahead. This may seem like a monumental task, and a impossible feat, but after all, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Avoiding the Speed Bumps

It has been almost a month since my last blog post, and generally when an extended period of time like this passes it either means that I’m in a very dark place, or in a relatively good space; the theory being that I either feel too low or disinterested to write anything, or conversely, I have no negative experiences or feelings to verbalise. Thankfully on this occasion I’m leaning towards the more positive end of the spectrum.

It’s also fair to say that I’ve had little time for writing over the past few weeks due to being extremely busy at work, and also a on holiday in Florida for almost two weeks. I believe the holiday was much needed, and felt like a true escape, not just from London, but also from my recent period of low and negative thinking. It also had the effect of transporting me back to simpler, more innocent times, a consequence of visiting the Disney theme parks as a family, just as I did when I was a child. While there is a danger that this bubble of safety I found myself in could lull me into a false sense of security, and merely act as a form of avoidance, thankfully some of the positive effects of the holiday have still lingered within me. Although the pessimist inside me insists this won’t last forever, and is merely a respite rather than a recovery.

Despite this relatively settled state of mind, it’s true to say that I enter the next few months with a great deal of trepidation, and a sense of impending doom which always seems a mere hairsbreadth away. This upcoming period has been a particularly difficult time for me in the past, acting as a catalyst for downward spirals of depression, and even though I can recognise this chain of events, it does not always mean I can can prevent it from happening. Whilst I am undoubtedly a huge fan of Christmas, it has always orchestrated extremely low feelings within, and it’s not always apparent why. Perhaps as this article suggests, “Christmas appears to be a trigger to engage in excessive self-reflection and rumination about the inadequacies of life in comparison with other people who seem to have more and do more”. Christmas is a period of celebrations, festivities and catching up with friends and family, and therefore perhaps its the presence of other people basking in apparent happiness, friendship and general joviality, which in turn precipitates feelings of loneliness, envy and deep critical self-reflection. Essentially the microcosm of Christmas fixates upon and exaggerates all of the emotions and anxieties within a 6 week period, and ensures that the shackles of depression cannot easily be broken free from.

It’s also true to state that the presence of my birthday a mere 2 weeks prior to Christmas adds measurably to the melting pot of emotions. It too acts as a time to reflect upon life gone by, mistakes made, relationships not yet achieved, and as each year passes this becomes more and more pronounced. With this year being my 30th birthday, I have a constant fear that this milestone will be the hardest yet. In many ways a birthday is worse than Christmas, as its the day in which you are the sole focus, as opposed to the global celebration of Christmas. So if no one turns up to your birthday, or you feel isolated and alone, its impossible to push away thoughts such as “nobody likes me”, “why can’t I be more liked?”, “why can’t I have the life of another person?” or “why have I not achieved x, y or z by this age?”. It also pressurises you to compare yourself with other people. Why does John Smith have a wife, a child, his own house and a purpose in his life at age 30, and yet I live on my own and have nothing compared the things he has achieved? Of course the mindset of a depressed person will conveniently forget all of the things that it has that John Smith doesn’t, as well as preemptively assuming that John Smith is happy inside, when in fact there is no way of telling if this is true.

It feels a shame to start this blog with positive thoughts, and end up writing about a purely negative mindset. Unfortunately its this way of thinking that a depressed persons mind forces upon its victim, and I am also being realistic based upon my own experiences, as well as being brutally honest, something which I vowed to do when I started this blog. As always I want nothing more than to be proven wrong, and if I come out of this next few months intact then I will feel it has been a huge achievement. Inevitably it helps that I’m on a steady road at this moment in time, as that can only help me in the long run. However, it’s the speed bumps later down the road that I’m worried about, as I don’t know if I have the strength to swerve past them, and am instead destined to collide head on with them, unable to prevent the devastation that will follow.