Tag Archives: depression

Making space for the feels

For much of my life, I’ve had external pressures making me feel emotionally unacceptable. Along the way I’ve been mocked, shamed, humiliated and punished for expressing my feelings. I’ve loved people dearly only to find them horrified by any expression of my loving them dearly. I’ve been told my expressed emotions are so extreme as to seem fake. Ridiculous, over the top, drama queen, attention seeking… you get the idea.

And so I learned to mute myself. To not say a good 90% of whatever I feel. To understate, make tame and easy and comfortable everything that goes on inside me. I’ve crushed myself to avoid having to deal with others crushing me. I’ve known for a long time that this process, whether it comes from within or without, has a ghastly effect on my mental health. But I’ve also learned how to put a poker face on and hide that as well. It seems fair to assume that the people who habitually dismissed me would also dismiss mental breakdowns as further attention seeking and fuss making.

In recent years I have benefited from safer and more supportive space and it has allowed me to stretch and experiment a little. I find that if I make some space for me in which I can be totally honest about how I feel, that I don’t take damage. Often this means getting some time alone (bathrooms are excellent for this) and holding a few minutes of space where I can feel the unacceptable thing. Anger, frustration, resentment, envy, bitterness – these are often the most trouble to express. However, I can have a fair amount of trouble with joy, pain, sorrow… I’m still not easy about crying over films in company.

If I make some space for me, and properly acknowledge what I’m feeling and treat it with respect, then hiding it feels very different. I am not made smaller. I am not crushing myself.

There are a lot of things I cope with by bullshitting. Physical pain is a constant in my life. Depression and anxiety are often present in my head. I’m often short of energy. I don’t find that dwelling on these helps me, and I prefer, for my own dignity and comfort, to put a good face on it. But this also means that most people are dealing with my fakery, and have no idea what’s really going on. Recently I’ve been experimenting with saying how things are but acting as I normally act. I’m working out who responds well to that information, who shares honestly in return, and who says ‘how are you?’ as a social gesture expecting ‘fine thank you how are you’ as the only possible reply. Because it’s not about genuine care, it’s about presenting socially in the right way.

I also find that where I make space deliberately for other people to be honest with me, and they take me up on that, I feel more confident about expressing myself. It gets easier to do the good stuff, too. To be exuberant, wholehearted, affectionate, to laugh wildly, and all those things, in the company of people who have room for it. Once again I find myself obliged to point out that mental health problems require community solutions. I did not get into that mess alone, I have not got out of it alone.


Meditation for mental health

Meditation can seem like an excellent tool for tackling mental health problems. So much so that if you go to a GP, you may find that mindfulness is suggested as the answer to your problems. Here are some of the things meditation helps with, and things it doesn’t.

Using meditation to calm panic attacks. You have to be an experienced meditator to be able to make your brain switch gear in face of panic. If you are learning to meditate to control panic, do not expect rapid results.

Using meditation to reduce anxiety. It can work if the panic is all inside your head. However, the odds are good that there are external stressors involved. You can learn to be calmer through meditation and thus cope better with stressors, if the stress isn’t too much. If you are under constant pressure, it is only by dealing with the external problem that you can sort out the anxiety. It isn’t all about what goes on in your head – not if you are bullied, forced to work in inhuman conditions, not getting enough rest or sleep and so forth. Trying to meditate your way out of it can make you feel more responsible for a problem not of your making.

Working alone and meditating in a way that makes you more aware of what your brain is doing (ie mindfulness style approaches) can work if your faulty thinking is most of the problem. For most people, anxiety has been caused by something. Sitting mindfully with your traumatic memories will do you more harm than good. Resolving trauma without the support of a counsellor is a long, hard, painful road. It can be walked, but I feel no one should have to do this alone.

When a person is depressed, the world appears in certain ways. I’ve never found meditation helpful for changing my outlook, not if all the meditation does is send me inwards into my own personal hell. Distraction is much better – pathworkings and other guided meditations, meditating on something simple and uplifting – a plant, a cloud, a nice oracle card… Getting out of your own head in this way can bring considerable relief. Sometimes, just getting the headspace is enough to help move things forward. Sometimes it isn’t.

There’s every reason to use meditation techniques for immediate relief and for coping with problems. If you find you can use it to tackle larger problems – all power to you. However, if you find meditating makes things worse, it is not a personal failing. If you find no respite, and that it sends you further down your own rabbit holes, don’t do it. If your problems are out there in the world and caused by other people, don’t make yourself solely responsible for fixing things.

Meditation is not a magic bullet, it is not a salve for every ill. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either trying to let themselves off the hook, or save themselves money, or wants to diminish your problems for their own comfort. It may be that they’ve only experienced very mild depression and anxiety – the sort meditation can definitely help with – but they don’t know what a minor brush they’ve had.


Intuition, ill health and uncertainty

As a much younger human, I trusted my intuition, but through my twenties I became ever less able to do so. For a long time I’ve had incidents that make it difficult to tell what I’m dealing with.

Anxiety will tell you that something is terribly wrong. Depression will tell you that there’s no point even trying, it’s all hopeless. Stress will tell you that you have to keep going, flat out no matter what. Problems with bodily health can feel like psychic attacks, premonitions or signs. If you start buying into these as intuitions of the truth, what you do is reinforce whatever is wrong with you. But at the same time, none of these conditions turn your intuition off, so that can also mean missing important insights.

I don’t think intuition is a ‘woo-woo’ issue, at least not all the time. We take in vast amounts of information – far more than we are consciously aware of. We do most of our processing unconsciously. Thus often what we experience as a magic thing happening, is really our brains having worked through what we’d got. Those ping moments of inspiration, eureka, and intuition aren’t at odds with reasoned thinking, they’re just one mechanism amongst many. At the same time, if your take on reality has room for truly magical things to happen, well, sometimes what we intuit can be so far removed from what we had information about, that this seems plausible.

The question remains, how to tell one from another? Just because you’re feeling anxious, doesn’t mean you’re paranoid. Just because you’re depressed doesn’t mean nothing is crushing you down.  In the last few years I’ve let go of the idea that my intuition is totally broken, unreliable and best ignored, and started making space for it. I’ve started trying to tease out those threads of mental health, hormonal activity, body feelings and so forth to get a better picture of what’s going on in my life.

I’ve come up with a couple of things I think are useful. Firstly, checking in with someone else. Most mental health issues make it difficult to trust your own judgement or perceptions. If there’s a person you really trust, being able to run things past them can be helpful. Am I being paranoid? What’s the most likely source of this experience? What’s your perception? It is worth being wary because two people intent on out-wooing each other can build layer upon layer of imagined things and end up convinced that they’re at the centre of a magical war or some such (I do not jest, I’ve seen it happen). If you can help each other think critically, all well and good. If not, it may do more harm than good.

My other solution is to give my intuition defined outlets – divination tools to play with where the interpretations do not depend so much on my own mental state. Oracle cards are great for this. It gives me a cross reference for the body feeling. Do the cards reinforce what I’m experiencing, or are they at odds with it, or do they cast the whole thing in a different light? It’s also a way of honouring and making space for my intuition rather than wholly distrusting it, and I feel better for being able to do that.


Working when ill

It’s something I’ve done a lot of over many years. One of the advantages of being self employed is that you have some flexibility when sick. You also have no scope whatsoever for sick pay, often there’s no one who can cover for you, and being ill can be expensive in that it can cost you future work. Increasingly, conventional workplaces seem to be pressuring people to work when ill as well.

I know from experience that I’m considerably less efficient when ill. It plays havoc with my concentration. I move slowly, making more mistakes, my judgements are never as good, I don’t have good ideas. There isn’t an ailment out there that won’t be easier and quicker to deal with if you’re able to rest, and won’t be exacerbated by additional stress. And some illnesses are contagious, and taking those to visit other people isn’t nice. The idea of keeping a human working when they’re sick clearly isn’t informed by anything real about the implications of illness.

Over time, there’s a bigger and more insidious impact to working when ill. It dehumanises you. It takes away the sense of being a proper person with the same rights as other people. You’re just a thing to keep slogging along to get the work done. This is one of the ways in which a physical health problem can easily develop into mental health problems as well. Exhausted, demoralised people who are obliged to keep suffering are likely to end up with low self esteem, anxiety and depression at the very least.

I will do the things I absolutely have to do, and then I’m heading back to bed with a book – because I can, and it’s a far better idea. There will be many other people obliged to work a full day today, despite being sick. Some of those people will be doing unpaid domestic work, but that doesn’t guarantee you respite, either. Given that the amount of work available is decreasing as people are replaced by machines, we could collectively square up to this and bring in a citizen’s income, so that no one has to work full time, and no one has to work when they’re ill. Failing that, better worker’s rights and a better social safety net would be a great help.


Contexts for depression

One of the things that makes it difficult to ask for help around depression, is that depression takes away any feeling that it is worth asking for help. It leaves me feeling that I am worth far less than anyone I might inconvenience with my distress. I feel that it would be better to make no fuss, to hide it, or to go away. However, alongside this it is worth noting that most depression is caused by experiences, not body chemistry, so not being able to ask for help usually means not being able to do anything about the source of the problem.

I blogged recently about anger and humiliation, and it’s become apparent to me how this intersects with depression. It’s often said that depression is anger turned inwards, but it is also the experience of dealing with people who get angry when you express difficulty. It’s being afraid to say there’s a problem in case you bringing it up is a bigger issue than you being unhappy. If the angry defensive response of the person who hurt you in the first place is likely to be even more harmful than the original harm, you soon learn not to say anything.

The person who has gone a few rounds with people who didn’t care, wouldn’t deal with issues, only wanted to be comfortable… that person learns not to make a fuss. They learn that their mental health is less important, while other people being comfortable at all times is more important. They learn that they are not worth as much as the people who get angry with them. The more exposure to this you get, the more you are likely to internalise it. The more you internalise it, the more likely you are to beat yourself up, not seek help, and view any situation in which your ‘illness’ has made someone else uncomfortable, as a potential threat to you.

As a culture, we make depression an issue for the individual, with cure a personal thing to sort out. I can say with confidence that it is nigh on impossible to fix this kind of dynamic while being in it. This is an example of the sort of thing where the behaviour of third parties can change everything. Do you encourage people to paper over the cracks, not make a fuss? Do you take people seriously if they admit they have a problem? Do you step in if one person seems to have far too much of the power in a situation? Do you challenge people who won’t look at their own issues or do you tacitly support their behaviour by staying silent?

When we do nothing, we support the person with the most power. When we do nothing, we facilitate the aggressors and bullies, and the people who refuse to take responsibility for their actions and inaction. Not getting involved is not an act of holding the middle ground, it is not an act of neutrality. Doing nothing is how we help bullies carry on, how we let abusers off the hook, and how we fail to tackle people who, unwittingly perhaps, are really piling the shit on those around them. Doing nothing and saying nothing sends a clear message that we have no problem with what’s going on. If more people were willing to be a bit uncomfortable now and then, many people would not have to spend their lives mired in utter despair and misery.


Anxiety, Depression and Self Esteem

On the whole, anxiety and depression are best tackled with self care. Rest, moving away from the sources of distress, not being outside your comfort zone too much, good food, sleep, exercise… All the obvious things that contribute to good health are needed to bring a person back from mental difficulty. Some (many?) of us who suffer from anxiety and depression have terrible trouble taking proper care of ourselves.

The person with poor self esteem struggles to believe that they deserve basic, essential things. Getting the job done thus seems more important than being well. Being useful is more important than being well even if being useful in the short term may compromise your longer term viability. For me, for a long time, the idea of self-care was itself a panic trigger and if people suggested it, I’d get even more distressed. I think I’m not alone in this.

When poor self esteem underpins poor mental health, the odds are a person has internalised a lot of crap from other people. We do not come alone to the idea of being worthless, useless, and that we deserve to suffer. We may believe we’re lazy, making a fuss, a nuisance – because we’ve had prolonged exposure to people telling us these things. We believe that we aren’t really ill, that the problem is that we aren’t trying hard enough. If only we made more effort to be more positive, we’d be better people. Getting a person to believe the bullshit of positivity logic can be one of the cruellest ways of keeping a mentally distressed person trapped in cycles of ill health.

Getting out of this is not a solo project. I know this because I can look back on my own journey and see when things started to change. Wind the clock back seven or eight years and I did not see myself as a real person. I was a thing made of straw and only my usefulness mattered. If I struggled, I’d push harder, beating myself up – physically and emotionally – to keep moving. I’d name call and shame and ridicule to make myself keep going, keep working, keep doing all the things. Running on internalised hate, I’d use the energy of that to keep my broken self moving.

There have always been people happy to add to the inner hate pile, and then to humiliate me as someone who ‘just plays the victim’ on top of that. I have taken those words into every burnout with me. I’ve listened to well meaning people online telling me I needed to take better care of myself, and I’ve been afraid to do so. As though being kind to me would turn me into something even more horrible and unworthy than I’d already been told I was.

I’ve been able to change because my environment has changed. It has taken time. Support and kindness at home, for years, has had consequences. Good friends who treat me with warmth provide an antidote to the poison others have poured into my ears. Support from fellow travellers has helped create a context for looking differently at these things. I could not have done this alone.

It’s a thing about mental health that needs saying and saying again. Most of us do not fall apart on our own. We fall apart for reasons that are outside our heads. Trying to find a personal solution to this is often futile. If environments are sick, the people in them will become and remain sick. Where people exploit each other, treat each other as worthless, expendable, or mock visible suffering, things only get worse. Collective solutions are the only workable ones, and in treating each other better, and being kinder to each other we can overcome so much more. Individual positivity can’t heal much of what’s wrong. Collective determination to change things really can make a difference.


The politics of madness

Political choices are causing mental health problems. This isn’t going to be a properly referenced article, but everything I’m talking about is out there in the public domain and easy to find if you want to poke about.

A great deal of psychological distress is caused not by something going on inside the sufferer, but by external things. We tend to place the blame on the sufferer, and most interventions focus on what the sufferer can do to sort themselves out, not what needs changing to make their lives bearable.

Twenty years ago when I studied psychology at college it was known that stress causes mental health problems. It was also known that your ability to resolve the problem is the major factor in how much stress you feel. Powerful people with great responsibilities do not feel anything like as much stress as poor people with no control over their lives.

Political choices are increasing poverty and insecurity. Zero hour contracts, precarious renting arrangements, threats to the NHS, to families and business and local environments all piles stress onto people who can do nothing to resolve the problems. The actions of our politicians are increasing mental health problems.

At the same time, funding for mental health care is abysmal, and the system that should take care of anyone too sick to work is such a nightmare that getting into it is likely to cause a person significant mental distress and lead them into anxiety and depression.

To be well, people need to feel reasonably secure and passably in control of their lives.

Poor diet has a negative impact on mental health. You can look at prison research into increasing vitamins in the diet and how that changed things for people. You can look at anything at all about brain chemistry. A person needs protein to build serotonin, and this chemical is key to feeling ok. Anyone on an impoverished diet will have impoverished body chemistry, with consequences for their mental health. That would be everyone depending on foodbanks.

Exhaustion, sleep deprivation, lack of rest and lack of fresh air and exercise all impact on mental health. Everyone I know is tired. We know we collectively have a sleep shortage problem. Noise pollution deprives us of quiet and traffic deprives us of clean air to breathe. Traffic deprives us of safe places to walk. Anything making our bodies ill will also impair our mental health because it’s all one system.

The trouble is, most of us are just statistics. There are more people than our government feels it needs, and so we are a disposable commodity, easily replaced. Why waste money taking care of people when you can throw them away and get new ones? It is, quite simply, the politics of madness, devoid of kindness and humanity. We are being normalised to it, and told any other way of being is naive and unrealistic. We are told all the things hurting us are in our interests – because it all comes down to money and growth.

All the while, the people pedalling this, who have to recast failure as success, the well meaning as traitors, the good as the enemy, the vulnerable as villains, are slowly driving themselves round the bend with cognitive dissonance.


Spirituality and depression

One of the effects that depression can have is a sense of separation from the world. This can play out in all kinds of ways – a sense of alienation from other people, a sense of dislocation from what you’re doing, distance from your own body and actions. The spiritual consequences of this detached feeling can be vast and deeply disturbing to deal with.

There have been springs when my inner season has remained winter and I’ve just not been able to connect with what was going on. There have been many days when it seemed as though all the life and colour had drained out of the world. How do you practice a Pagan faith when everything tastes like cardboard? When all you can do is skim the surface of life and not experience any breadth or depth? When you can’t feel a sense of connection, depression can rapidly become a spiritual crisis as well.

When I am depressed, I have tended to lose either my intuition or my ability to trust it. I’m not creative, or am less creative. I’m not open, so very little can get in, including the things I really need to have permeating me – the seasons, the time of day, the weather, the songs of birds.

I have a suspicion that depression may be worse for Pagans than for people of many other faiths. In many religions, there are rituals, prayers, songs, actions, regular gatherings for worship. It is normal to show up to these because it’s what you do rather than in the expectation of anything massive happening. Paganism has a far greater emphasis on personal revelation, experience of the divine and the numinous, and for a person mired in depression, these experiences are not very likely at all. We’ve got a priesthood, but it’s individuals working alone, mostly. We don’t have the support infrastructures to help take care of people who run things when they are in difficulty themselves.

I hold inspiration sacred. I’m dedicated to the bard path, a big part of my spiritual life is about creating and performing. Again, these are things that it is very difficult to do at all, or to do well when the black dog has sunk its teeth in.

I don’t have any tidy solutions to this. It helps to know that you are dealing with depression and not Pagan-fail. You may not be able to do the things you normally would – anything calling for concentration – so meditation and ritual can be too difficult. You might not feel as you normally feel – no sense of the animistic reality around you, no sense of the gods or the voices of spirit in the wind or whatever it is you normally do. That itself can be painful and disorientating and will add to the burden of depression.

Believing that all of this will pass can be the hardest belief to hold onto.


Depressed or melancholy?

There are people who will tell you that depressed people are just making a fuss, ought to pull themselves together. Take a nice walk, listen to some music, stop feeling sorry for yourself. These are people who haven’t experienced depression for themselves. What makes it difficult is that they may have experienced melancholy, and believe that the depressed person is feeling as they did when that happened to them.

Now, when it comes to a touch of gloom, a down day, a bit of melancholy, this is sound advice. Get outside, go for a coffee with a friend. Listen to your favourite album. Play with a cat. Do something you know will lift your mood, and your mood will lift. So long as you don’t wallow about in it, you can indeed get shot of it, because it’s just a mood and will pass.

From the outside, there are no obvious signs that a depressed person is experiencing something different from that. However, depression means serious underlying unresolved issues. This may be current life issues – stress, lack of rest etc, it can be a side effect of physical illness and ongoing pain, it can be unprocessed trauma, it may be a chemistry issue. Small changes won’t shift it. In some cases, a degree of relief can be found in doing small things, and for some of us, doing small uplifting things over weeks, or perhaps months can really help turn things around – this was certainly true for me. Getting a change in your environment that allows you more good stuff can make a difference. But, a single shot of uplift won’t change things. In the not being uplifted by the supposed cure, the depressed person can slide further in, feeling ever more powerless and useless.

If the depressed person is subjected to a barrage of being told they should be able to fix this with an array of superficial magic cures, they are not going to be less depressed. They may get worse. Tell a really depressed person to pull themselves together, stop making a fuss, stop wallowing, let go of the self pity – and you will fuel the feelings of despair, uselessness and worthlessness that very likely underpin their condition. Anyone really keen to pull a depressed person out – don’t tell them what to do, get in there and see what you can gently do that will enable them to do it. Ask what would help. Offer support. Don’t assume you know best. Many people have no hope of healing until the thing causing the problem changes.

And, for people who are depressed, I know how hard it is not to internalise other people’s suggestions as criticism. There was a meme a bit back that basically said trees are medicine and pills are rubbish – it’s a case in point because it creates the impression that depressed people just aren’t trying hard enough or making the right choices. And so you feel worse than before. If you can hang on to the thought that anyone pedalling this stuff is talking from a place of total ignorance, it helps. The really problematic ones are the folk who will tell you they know about depression, when all they really know is about sadness and fleeting gloom. They mistake their molehill for your mountain. But, when they are confident and you feel like shit, it is all too easy to be persuaded.

The bottom line is, if what someone else says isn’t useful, that doesn’t make them right and you useless. It may well mean they have no bloody idea. It is possible to prevent them from stealing away more of your self esteem if you can bear this in mind.

The bottom line for people on the other side of this is that if you think you have a simple solution for depression, then you are wrong. You may have an effective intervention for passing gloom, but anything that can be fixed with a walk in the park or a kitten photo was not depression in the first place and you need to reassess what you think depression is and be alert to the risk of blaming the sufferer.

I haven’t had a really bad bout in more than a year now. I’ve had rough patches, but I think I’m surfacing. There were no quick fixes.


When you can’t do self care

You watch someone work, and work and burnout, and try to keep going. You try to help them by encouraging them to take better care of themselves, and it doesn’t get through – which is frustrating and off-putting. What do you do? I write this as both someone who has struggled with self-care and someone who has wanted to help others who clearly have the same sorts of issues. There are reasons some people can’t do it and respond badly to being told they need to.

Depression, which tends to cause feelings of low or no self worth, and any other self esteem issues make it hard for a person to feel like looking after themselves is worth doing. The idea of putting yourself first can cause huge feelings of guilt, shame, and failure. Thus a recoiling in horror at the suggestion of taking a day off.

For people living in abusive situations, or who have a history of being abused, it can feel, or actually be unsafe to take care of yourself. Even taking your own needs into account may provoke hostility, verbal abuse, criticism, mockery, being told you are selfish, lazy, useless, not taking proper care of others. You might have someone in your life who will take any excuse to work themselves into a state of anger, and from the anger may come physical violence. What happens if you are exposed to anything like this is you can take on the idea that it is your selfish lazy fault that has caused the perfectly reasonable anger and violence. So you learn to ignore your needs because it is safer to pretend you don’t have any.

For anyone with abuse issues, encouragement to self care can be a panic trigger. It’s really hard to deal with from the outside because it makes no sense to anyone who has not had their right to be a person stripped from them.

The best way to help, is to go in with logic. Here are some tried and tested thought forms.

Burnout is inefficient, if I rest now, I won’t burn out.

I will produce a better quality of work if I am less tired. My concentration will be better.

I am investing in being able to work sustainably and being able to meet more of my commitments.

It’s like putting fuel in the tank so you have something to run on.

A person who is able to stop, draw breath, rest and take care of themselves – even if they think they’re only doing it so as to work better – will slowly improve their self esteem. Once you get off the hamster wheel and aren’t running all the time it becomes easier to think rationally. Exhausted people are not rational, generally.

A person who can’t do self care because they’re in too dangerous a situation needs to realise this and get out. Telling them will not always help much. Support them in feeling worthwhile. Don’t tell them what they should do – that just undermines their already battered self esteem. Tell them that you care about them and want to see them well and thriving, and perhaps they’ll tell you why they are afraid of self-care. Always remember that for an abuse victim, the most dangerous time is the time when they try to leave – this is the time a person is most likely to be subjected to violence or even killed. It is always worth getting advice and support from the police for a safe exit.