Tag Archives: depression

Seeking Joy

For wellbeing, we need joy. We need things in our lives that uplift, inspire and comfort us. Lockdown really isn’t helping with that – the loss of live music and places to dance has hit me hard. I miss the steampunk evens and the people I only see there. There are people it is distressing not to be able to hug. Joy is really important, and knowing what gives you joy is essential so that you can invest in it.

Depression strips the joy out of everything. It takes away the colours and flavours, and makes life seem thin, hollow and grim, even when it isn’t. If joy is in short supply, depression will leave you with very little.

It is possible to find happiness in very small things. This is usually something I’m really good at. The light on the trees outside the window. The brief appearance of a wild bird. A joke on social media. I practice gratitude and I make the best of what I have, and that helps. It is good to look for the best in things. However, these small joys are crumbs at best. If you have a life that is full of wild beauty and small joys then those many crumbs can start to look a lot like cake. If you don’t, then the diet of crumbs may not be enough.

What I crave most, and have always wanted most, are intense interactions with other people. Thinking and feeling, loving, laughing, co-pondering, imagining, sharing stories, creating together. I’m good at doing that sort of thing online, but I need enough of it in person to sustain me, and lockdown makes that really hard.

How many people live without access to beauty? How many people have little or no comfort in their lives, and no time or money for things that would genuinely feel good? How much depression is caused by the lack of joy and by a society that pushes consumerism at the expense of health and wellbeing? How many people have little or no access to green spaces in their daily lives? How many lives are lived without enough warmth, kindness and tenderness? What if the availability of joy was a collective concern, not just something for those who can afford to buy opportunities?


How hard is it?

If you’re dealing with long term illness, pain or mental health difficulties, it can seem appropriate to try and figure out how hard things really are. How does your experience compare with other people’s? This will likely stem from a feeling that you are making too much fuss, and not being stoical enough. You may not feel confident that you are entitled to ask other people to take your suffering seriously.

Distress is not really a thing that can be measured in relation to other people’s distress. However, the urge to do so comes from experiences like being told you shouldn’t make a fuss because other people are worse off. By this logic, only one person in the world at any given time is allowed to make a fuss!

In any sane and compassionate scenario, what will matter is that you are suffering. If you have to prove you are suffering enough to be taken seriously, there’s something wrong with the situation. If you’ve had extensive exposure to having to prove your discomfort, you may be in the habit of doing it to yourself even when there’s no longer anyone around to suggest that it probably isn’t as bad as you are making out.

Many people have terrible double standards around taking their own discomfort really seriously while being dismissive of everyone else. It is of course the people who know perfectly well that they make a fuss about little or nothing who tend to mistrust other people’s self-reporting. People who are used to being comfortable often treat minor setbacks like a bigger deal, people who are used to being uncomfortable often learn not to let it be the most important thing.

I’ve noticed around my issues that I feel obliged to be able to explain and demonstrate things. If I am upset, I have to make sure that I can reasonably explain why I am upset and I have to feel confident that any normal person would also be upset in the circumstances. It’s never felt like enough just to not like something or be uncomfortable. I’m trying to stop doing this, and to make space for how I feel regardless of whether I can demonstrate the reasonableness of the feeling. I often catch myself accounting what I’ve done against how I’m feeling, like this is an equation to balance, and if I haven’t done enough to feel tired, I don’t feel comfortable stopping.

All bodies are unique, all situations are unique, all minds are unique. What someone else might do is not that useful a measure. How hard it is for you is the most important consideration. But, if you’ve had knocks to your confidence, or don’t get taken seriously, it can be hard to hang on to that. No one else really knows what anyone else is feeling or going through. How hard is it? Really only you can say. Feeling you are entitled to say can be challenging. Trusting that your experience and needs are what matter can be hard if you’ve been taught not to do that.

If you know it’s important to keep a sense of proportion… if you care about not asking too much of other people… if you worry about whether things aren’t as hard as you think they are… trust yourself. You are paying attention, you aren’t being self-indulgent, your experiences and opinions are valid. It’s the people who never worry about these things who tend to make a lot of fuss over very little. Try and work out whose the voices are that tell you your experiences aren’t valid – the odds are there are specific people who have downplayed your distress and treated you like you were playing up the discomfort to get your own way, or get out of something. You don’t owe those people anything at all.


Pain, Shame and Guilt

I think in many ways it’s a reflection of how seldom mental health is taken seriously that we add shame and guilt on top of people’s existing pain. No one who considered themselves kind and well meaning would tell a person with flu to just pull themselves together and try harder as though this is how you get over flu. We don’t tend to tell people whose bodies have been seriously injured that they should ‘man up’. Culturally we do have some serious and parallel issues around how we treat chronic pain and long term disability, but that’s a post for another day.

We treat psychological injuries as though they are personal failures and in doing so, add to the burden already wounded people are carrying.  Telling people the reasons you think they shouldn’t be in pain doesn’t ease pain. What it does do is help that person internalise shame and carry guilt about their own suffering. That in turn makes it harder to ask for help.

Depression isn’t an individual failing. Often the reasons for it aren’t personal, but systemic. Poverty and the stress of insecurity makes people ill. Overwork, leading to exhaustion and burnout makes people ill. Distress caused by mass extinction and climate chaos makes people ill. Being made responsible for things we have no power over also makes us ill. Here in the UK we have a culture of working people to death, blaming them for not being able to find work in a shrinking jobs market, causing poverty and then blaming people for being poor and a host of other such horrors that pile on the misery. The result is that not only do you get to suffer the consequences of stress and insecurity, but you get to feel like it’s all your fault for not being good enough in the first place.

If you do get help with mental health issues, the odds are it will be meds. That’s what we can have. Huge numbers of people are suffering depression and anxiety as a direct consequence of our messed up work culture and precarious lives. How can the answer to such system failures, be chemical? Use it to get by if it helps you, but don’t buy into the idea that meds are the answer here.

We have to stop blaming individuals for suffering and start talking about the way in which our culture is sick. We get less time off than your typical mediaeval peasant. The safety net of welfare is being eroded. We are punished for misfortune and poverty. We don’t have enough green space, enough quiet space or enough time to benefit from exercise. Many of us can’t afford to eat well. It is difficult to be mentally well in such a situation.

Mental health is a collective problem that needs solutions on a societal level. When we treat it as a personal problem to be solved at the personal scale, we add to the guilt and shame that makes people ill, and perpetuate the stories in our culture that are causing bodily and emotional sickness. Mental health is a cultural issue, a societal issue, a political issue.


High Functioning Depressive

For a long time, I believed that the depression I experienced wasn’t that serious on the basis that I am able to keep going and do stuff. One of the classic measures of depression is that it shuts a person down – can’t think, can’t concentrate, can’t even get out of bed some days, no energy, no anything. I’m deeply grateful to author Craig Hallam for gifting me with the term ‘high functioning depressive’ because it’s reframed my whole experience of being depressed, and changed my sense of self.

I’m good at hiding things. In most ways I’m a very honest person, but when it comes to how much I’m suffering, I lie with every part of myself. It means people can know me pretty well and not know what kind of distress I experience. I’m good at keeping going. But then, I’ve been dealing with fatigue since I was in my teens. I’ve lived with pain, exhaustion and depression my whole adult life and I’ve learned to work around it. I have a huge amount of will power, a vast amount of discipline and self control, an unusual amount of determination and these combine to make me look fairly normal and functional. It is often less expensive to hide this stuff than explain it when I am in trouble.

From the outside, it is hard to see what anything is costing me. Blogger and author Merry Debonnaire suggested that I start measuring the costs in terms of distress and exhaustion. Partly to get this in better perspective for myself. Partly to help me explain to other people what I’m dealing with. There are mornings when sitting at the computer to work is as exhausting as a ten mile walk on a more functional day. There are days when getting to the bathroom is like trying to climb a hill. There are times when doing ordinary things is like trying to do the last mile of a twenty mile walk that has broken my body already. It’s a useful re-framing.

There are very few people I will spend time with when I’m in trouble, and who I feel safe letting see that. I also get a lot done. That means from the outside, it is really hard to measure how depression, anxiety, pain and fatigue really impact on me. For some people, that’s going to be confusing. For some people, it will make me seem fake, or attention seeking, or fuss making. The notion that you can look at a person and determine that they ‘don’t look ill’ and judge accordingly is a really suspect one. The idea that what a person can do on one day is a fair measure of what they can do on another also needs flagging up as problematic.

On a good day I can walk fifteen or twenty miles. Days that good are rare. On a good day I can work for eight or ten hours and I have phenomenal concentration. On a bad day I still have a longer concentration span than most people. What one person can do when they are well or ill is no measure of what it’s fair to expect from another person. We’re all different, and in unique circumstances. What one person can do on a good day isn’t a measure of what happens on a bad day.

Depression is often framed as an invisible illness. It isn’t invisible. It’s there to be seen if you look for it. There to be understood if you listen. It is however an illness that can be very easily dismissed and ignored, by anyone who finds it more convenient or comfortable to deny that there’s a problem. A person not conforming to expectations is not automatically a person who is well and lying, or making a fuss.


Seasonally out of kilter

I’ve had a few periods in my life where, despite my best efforts I’ve not felt connected to the season. Getting outside and being with wild things under an open sky is a longstanding part of how I do my Druidry. Health permitting, I walk every day – there have been times when poor health has been the reason for my disconnection. Usually, that time outside allows me to engage with what’s happening. I see the changes in plants, insects, creatures, I see what the trees are doing, I experience the temperature and weather conditions and I am properly inside each season as it unfolds.

Currently I’m out of kilter. Part of this is me. I spent September frozen. I walked regularly, but I wasn’t feeling anything much and even though I made the effort to try and connect, I was doing so from inside a glacier, emotionally speaking. I’ve had this sort of thing happen before and the only answer is patience and persistence. Depression can leave me so numb that I don’t feel anything of what’s going on around me and I lose my sense of joy in the wild things. These frozen times pass. I think I’m experiencing a thaw at the moment.

However, as my emotional state thaws, I’m still finding myself out of kilter with the season. This is because the season is out of kilter. It’s mid October, and many of the trees haven’t even started to change their leaf colour. It wasn’t so long ago that leaf colour went autumnal reliably in September and you could expect the leaves to be down by Samhain in this part of the world.

A few days ago I saw my first catkins. I’ve never seen hazel catkins on a tree this early before, and I’ve never seen them on a tree that also had green leaves on it before. I have no idea what that tree is doing. Maybe the tree doesn’t know either.

This is climate chaos in action. Calling it climate change suggests a process with some coherence to it. That would be more feasible for living things to adapt to. What we have is chaos. Unpredictable, unseasonal temperatures. Storms. Hot days in the normally cold part of the year, and back in the summer, really cold days. I’m out of kilter, but in some ways that means I am more in harmony with what’s going on than I would be if I clung to the idea of what this time of year is supposed to be like. I don’t enjoy it, but I know how important it is to engage with what’s happening, not what we think should be happening.


Depression and communication

Depression can make communication very difficult. This is why encouraging depressed people to ask for help isn’t actually that productive – if you can’t communicate, you can’t flag up distress to other people. Putting the onus on depressed people to actively seek help doesn’t solve much, adds to the pressure and it reinforces the idea that solving depression is a problem for the individual sufferer.

People who are deep in depression don’t always know that’s what is happening – especially if they haven’t experienced it before. Around communication, depression can manifest as having nothing to say, no ability to put what’s happening into words, feeling overwhelmed by the idea of trying to have a conversation with anyone. Not being able to do the things you normally do to express yourself. For me, one of the first things to go is singing. I can’t always speak – my throat literally closes up. I don’t write about depression when it is drowning me – I tend to blog when I’m surfacing, or when things are less bad. On the worst days, I can’t talk about what’s happening. The worse it is, the less able I am to ask for help.

Not knowing that the loss of communication skills and the feelings of being overwhelmed even are depression symptoms means that someone suffering won’t know that they might need help. It also means that if you see someone go quiet, you won’t necessarily get much insight by asking if they are ok – they may well not be able to tell you whether they are ok. It’s worth asking anyway, but don’t assume that an ‘I’m fine’ means the person is actually fine. They may be in trouble and largely inarticulate.

Talking about distress when you aren’t ready to doesn’t reliably help. It can feel like having to perform your pain for someone else. It can feel like you have to explain what’s going on – and you may not have the resources to do so. Pushing people to talk about their feelings won’t necessarily help them.

In these kinds of situations, small gestures can be really powerful. Text your silent person. Send them photos of cute things. Bring them chocolate. Offer opportunities to go out, to talk, to do something you would normally do together, but don’t take it personally if they decline. Make a path for them to come back when they are ready. Make it clear that your care for them is not dependent on their being able to perform for you. Keep talking. If someone who matters to you falls silent, don’t wait for them to ask for help. They may not be able to do that. Get in there in whatever way you can, and be as patient as you can be.


Breakdown and breakthrough

CW trauma recovery

Healing can be a messy process. When it comes to matters of mental health, there are points in the journey that can only be messy. Most of us do not get into difficulty on our own. There are reasons that we suffer from depression and anxiety, and those reasons tend to involve extreme stress and traumatic experiences. To recover from that, you need to be in a safer place, and you will have to square up to what happened.

The most common environment for wounding to occur is the domestic one. People are most at risk from violence, abuse, sexual assault and rape from people they know, not from strangers. This is more traumatic to begin with because of the layers of betrayal and broken trust when the people you should have been able to most trust are the ones who harm you. Part of the healing process for many people will involve squaring up to what someone they loved did to them. That is a vicious, painful process to be in.

Abusers encourage their victims to feel responsible for what is happening. This protects the abuser and keeps the victim pliable and cooperative. The mental health damage is massive. It’s further complicated when the victim wants to think the best of their abuser and is easily persuaded to feel that they are to blame so that they can keep believing that their partner, or parent or other person they care about, is actually a good person. To heal from that experience requires re-visiting it and re-framing it and that is a hard process.

While you’re in there, the difference between breakdown and breakthrough can be almost impossible to spot. Some healing is impossible without some breaking down of the old self and the old worldview first. Again, this is a desperately hard thing to go through, and while in the thick of it, there may be no sense that this is a breakthrough process moving you towards healing. Not everyone hits this in the context of having professional support to get through it.

Breaking down always creates the possibility for a breakthrough of some sort. But, that’s not an obligation to heal. Without support, resources, time and care, a breakdown can be just another hellish period of misery. Having the space to transform breakdown into breakthrough is a privilege issue. For the person who is still in the harmful situation, healing isn’t an option.

But, it can be some comfort to know that when you hit a period of breakdown, it might lead to breakthrough. There is every chance its happening because you are able to step away from the past and start re-building. It is not an easy choice to go with this process rather than fighting it, but sometimes, surrendering really pays off.

I will likely be coming back to this in the not too dim and distant future to talk in more detail about how recent breakdown has allowed me to make some specific breakthroughs.


Checking in

Depression will tell you that no one cares. It will tell you that you don’t matter. It may go further and suggest to you that everyone you know would be happier and better off if you disappeared. This kind of thinking can kill people.

It is one of the most crippling things about being depressed – that the very nature of it can make it impossible to seek help. You don’t believe you deserve help. You feel like no one would care, or take you seriously. You may have voices in your head (which probably started as things other people said) about how you make a fuss, over-react, are attention seeking and like to wallow in misery. This stuff is the enemy of speaking up and seeking any kind of care or support.

Check in.  Ask people to send kittens, or otters, or whatever lifts you a bit – it’s an easy way to get some gestures of support without having to be too explicit about how you are feeling. Talk to someone. It doesn’t have to be much, you don’t have to go into detail about what’s going on. Just show up where you can.

Check in, because the odds are good someone does care and would notice. There may even be people who would be hurt and frightened if you suddenly went quiet. And those people might not be ok either, and sometimes the threads holding any of us together are thin and fragile.

I’m not ok right now, but I’m checking in. I thought about not posting, but the previous blog came from a dark place and I do not want anyone to see my absence and worry about what it means. I’m still here. I’m going through some really difficult things. I will get through them.

I think part of what yesterday’s post means is that I’ve broken through into some of the narratives that go on in my head. I’ve recently encountered the idea that we might gaslight ourselves, and I’m going to spend some time considering my own thought patterns in light of that. I’ll be back when I know something.


Talking about mental health

In a recent blog post, Cat Treadwell flagged up some of the things that reliably happen if you try to talk about mental health problems.  It is unfortunately quite normal to hear that you are attention seeking, making a fuss, being a drama queen, over-reacting and things of that ilk. It is also equally normal, when people turn out to have self harmed, attempted suicide, or managed it, to find a lot of people wondering why they never said anything and never asked for help. As though these two things are totally unrelated.

Talking saves lives. Emotional support, witnessing, expressions of care and help with the problems that are causing the depression in the first place all increase a person’s chances of survival. Our culture tends to frame mental health problems as personal, but usually it isn’t – poverty, lack of opportunity, poor physical health, insecurity and a lack of dignity all pushes people towards the edges. These are social, systemic things and we could fix them. Western culture makes people lonely.  The solutions to this lie in community and relationship, but if you can’t speak of it, you can’t access that support.

How something is experienced depends a lot on resources. The less resourced you are, the harder a setback can be to bear. So, if you are doing ok, and your friend appears to be in a similar situation and struggling, is this because they make more of a fuss than you do? What’s the bigger picture? Throw in a large debt, a health problem,  an abuse history and the thing you think shouldn’t be a big deal becomes much harder to manage.  When people ask for help we can’t always see the scale of their issues, so it is as well not to dismiss or diminish whatever is mentioned.

Some people are more sensitive than others, but society tends to view sensitivity as weakness. To care, to feel empathy, to be afraid for the world, to grieve over the loss of species, or the homeless on the streets, or the hungry children depending on food banks – there is so much to break your heart over. Increasingly to be viable is to be heartless. To care about anything is to live with a broken heart. If we prized that sensitivity we’d be a lot closer to fixing the entirely fixable woes we create. If we treat sensitivity as a failing, we can only push on to make life worse for each other.

You may think that if someone was suicidal, you’d be able to do and say the right things to keep them alive. What many non-depressed people don’t realise, is that your suicidal friend isn’t likely to pick up the phone and tell you they are going to kill themselves. It’s not what we do. It’s not when the windows of opportunity occur most reliably to save lives. Your very depressed friend might however speak up about some aspect of how they are suffering before it fully overwhelms them.  It may not make any sense to you. It may not seem like a big deal. Often, the life and death stuff is much smaller looking than is really the case.  Respond well to those smaller expressions and the person you are supporting may never end up trying to kill themselves.

Tell someone they are making a fuss, and when they no longer know how to keep breathing, they may remember that, and not reach out for help.


When you lose your mental health

It isn’t always obvious that you are in crisis. From inside a mental health crisis, what you are doing and feeling may well make perfect sense. Lockdown may make people more vulnerable to suffering the consequences of not knowing you are in trouble,  so I thought I’d talk about a few things to watch for, in yourself, and anyone you’re interacting with.

Paranoia is a likely consequence of poor mental health. It’s a form of anxiety, and right now it will be made worse by lack of contact with people who can offer alternatives, plus the vast array of conspiracy theories out there. If you are in a country whose government is handling the pandemic badly and people are dying because of that, then some amount of paranoia may be appropriate and reasonable. When it takes over your entire thought process, then you are in trouble, but this is hard to spot from the inside.

Catastrophising is another common consequence of failing mental health. You focus on the worst possible outcomes and start to see them as likely, or inevitable. Again this may seem wholly realistic. If you’re starting to feel like lockdown will never end, that you and everyone you have ever loved is bound to die, then you are catastrophising. It is a persuasive line of thought, but that doesn’t make it a definite truth.

Overwhelming futility – this one comes from depression, but it can pair up easily with paranoia and catastrophising. It feels like there is no point doing anything. At the extreme end, there seems to be no point getting out of bed, or eating. This is likely to turn up with, and be reinforced by overwhelming feels of exhaustion and leadenness.

The best solution I have found when dealing with this in better times, was to have people you can trust to hear you, not make you feel ridiculous and help you get things back in proportion. However, there is no knowing right now who else might be driven around the bend by what they are experiencing. If we dig in with these experiences together, we can amplify them for each other. It’s difficult to keep things in proportion when the world is such a mess. It’s hard to be certain that any kind of hope or optimism is rational at all. But in terms of surviving and being able to function, some kind of hope is essential. Hope as a deliberately chosen path, despite all the evidence that does not support it, might be the most insane and most healthy thing you can go for right now.

The other thing to always consider with failing mental health, is to focus on the practical and physical things. Look after your body, eat good food, rest, get exercise, get some sun if you can and some tree time. It gives your mind something productive to focus on and you can make a difference to yourself and those around you with a focus on bodily wellbeing. Focus on surviving and staying able to function. Hopefully there is a far side to all this where healing will be possible and we can rebuild ourselves. Human minds are fragile and damage easily, but are also resilient and can recover.