Tag Archives: depression

Down Days – Further

Yesterday I posted a review of Down Days by Craig Hallam. I read the book a little ahead of that and have had time to think about it beyond the reviewing process. It’s taken me some interesting places. I’ve only had dealings with the medical profession in the last decade about depression, and only in that time frame have I used the term confidently with regards to myself. I didn’t get much help, which played into my anxieties about how I make a fuss and over-react.

Reading Craig’s book, several things struck me. That he’s talking about down days, with some longer patches of being mired in depression. One of the blocks for me, to taking my mental health seriously is that I’ve always been able to keep going, to get out of bed, to push through and do whatever was important. So I’d been taking that to mean that in the grand scheme of things, I probably wasn’t suffering that much. I don’t have down days. I rarely have days where depression isn’t with me – perhaps only as a low level hum in the background, but definitely almost always there.

I’d not really treated that as meaningful.

Craig talks really well about living with depression, that it is something he’s going to have to manage for the longer term, not something he might ever be truly free from. I realised I’d been holding the belief that I should be able to fix this. If I try harder, make better choices, do the right things… that it is a failing on my part and something I ought to fix. Reading Down Days made me consider that perhaps this isn’t the size of it, and that I might treat myself more kindly if I put those beliefs down. And also that treating myself kindly might be more helpful than pushing for a fix.

When was I not depressed? Thinking about the symptoms, it goes right back for me. When was I not anxious? And when did I ever feel like my discomfort, my fear and my distress actually mattered? Even since I started trying to sort myself out and acknowledging that there’s a problem, I’ve not thought about it in terms of being entitled to feel better than this. I’ve thought about it as being less of a nuisance. And that’s probably not helping. In the background noise remains the fear that I’m making a fuss, being unreasonable, and if I act like any of this matters, it would be fair to tell me off and put more pressure on me.

For the last ten years or so, it’s been about trying harder. Being more mentally disciplined and controlling my thoughts. Risk assessing my anxiety to stop myself taking it seriously. It came as a bit of a shock to me to consider that being kinder to myself might be the key thing to being more mentally well. That maybe it would be ok to be kinder to me. That this would not make me a horrible, selfish awful person. That I might be entitled to be passably comfortable, not deserving to drown in misery. These are big thoughts, it’s going to take a while to adjust to them.

More about Down Days here – https://www.inspired-quill.com/product/down-days/


Down Days – a review

This isn’t a self help book or any kind of technical book about depression and anxiety. It is however, a very readable and useful sort of book.

Craig Hallam is best known for his fiction – which has gothic and steampunk flavours in the mix. He’s a splendid chap. I’m reviewing this book because it has considerable merit, and I like Craig a lot. Reviewing a book about depression and anxiety written by someone who suffers, and being someone who suffers, I have some idea what a brain can do in these scenarios… Craig is lovely, and his book is thoughtful and insightful and some people are going to find it incredibly helpful. (But I can almost hear the voice in Craig’s head trying to explain why I probably hated it, and him…)

If you suffer from depression and anxiety and feel alone in this, reading Down Days might just help ease that a bit. It’s not just you. There’s much to be said for a friendly, understanding voice, and Craig is that.

It is, I have noticed repeatedly, a lot easier to think about other people’s problems. We’re likely to be kinder to other people. I rate your chances of reading about Craig’s experiences and feeling clear that the things that live in his head are horrible, unfair things that need treating kindly. Even when you’re telling yourself that the near-identical things living in your own head are perfectly sensible and justified. Sometimes, what we can feel for other people opens a door to being able to see ourselves differently.

Perhaps the most useful aspect of this book is the scope for giving it to someone else. Talking about mental illness is really hard. Explaining what it’s like is very difficult. I’m a words person, and on a good day I can have a crack at describing it. On a bad day I can barely string sentences together and I don’t talk about what’s happening. Not everyone has good days. Even on the good days, you might not have any words. What Craig has written is a very readable, unthreatening sort of book about depression and anxiety from the inside. So, if there’s a person whose understanding would make a lot of odds to you, but to whom you cannot explain things, this book could be the perfect answer. It would be a way of starting a conversation without having to do the talking, and a way of helping someone else understand without having to dig into the things you least want to have to think about.

One of the things I think reliably breaks people down is not knowing how to treat ourselves kindly. Many of us did not get here alone, and may be kept here by what’s happening in our lives. After a while, you can start to feel like you don’t deserve kindness – that’s very much part of the condition. It persuades you that this is all you are worth, that no one could care, that if they do, you don’t deserve it and that you are at best, a waste of space. This book is kind. This book will be kind to you, and it will show you things that might help you be a bit kinder to yourself, and not have that be a frightening thing.

You can buy this book other places online, but buying direct from the publisher’s blog is also a thing, so here’s the link – https://www.inspired-quill.com/product/down-days/


Learning to like myself

For most of my life, I’ve not much liked myself. I mistrust my judgement and my motives. I feel I have to justify my choices. I never feel like I’m doing enough, giving enough and that alongside this I am a mostly inconvenient nuisance. Worrying about what I cost financially goes back a long way. Aged eleven I started keeping a diary because it helped me ascertain whether I could justify my existence on a day to day basis. I worry about being fake and fraudulent and making too much fuss and not being stoical enough and not working hard enough. I don’t like my face or my body shape either and there are lots of ways in which my body is a difficult place to be.

(And I wonder, when I share things like this if anyone is going to have a go at me for being attention seeking, or feeling sorry for myself, or not trying harder to be positive… because that all happens.)

Just in this last year or so, I’ve started having small windows of something entirely different. Usually it’s prompted by something I’ve done that has demonstrably gone well. I get bursts of time when I think I’m a decent person and that it is possible to enjoy being me. It is surprising, and the impact in terms of my feelings of wellbeing is dramatic. It also gives me some sense of what it might be like to go round feeling like a good person who is entitled to exist and be happy.

Depression has been with me for a long time. It may be with me for the rest of my life. But, these windows of getting to feel ok are dramatic and remarkable things. I really had no idea that was available. Prior to experiencing it, I did not imagine it existed, and I did not know that I was not even seeing that could be a thing. If I can do it for a few hours here and there, perhaps I can do more of it. Perhaps I can get to a place of not mostly feeling bad about who and how I am. Perhaps I can do enough things I can feel that good about that the impact continues for longer. I don’t know, but it feels worth trying.


Suicide and selfishness

Trigger warnings, in case the title of the post wasn’t entirely clear on that subject.

This week has seen World Suicide Prevention Day, and a lot of conversations around why suicide happens and how to stop it. The idea that suicide is an immensely selfish thing to do has been challenged a fair bit, but, I wanted to pick over the mechanics. I feel this one keenly.

I’ve had a lot of rounds of wanting to die – not necessarily wanting to take my own life, but just wanting it to be taken from me so that I might stop hurting. I have also had rounds of wanting to take my own life and moving towards acting on that. Those rounds had one thing in common – the growing belief that it was the best thing I could do for everyone else.

When depression gets its teeth into me, I feel awful, useless and worthless. I feel like I’m a burden to everyone else, a nuisance, a problem. If my being depressed has a negative impact on other people, if my not coping causes someone else a problem, that suspicion creeps in that the best thing I could do would be to offer my absence. Usually I just step back, go silent, disappear, but death is the ultimate absence, and sometimes it starts to look like the single best thing I could do.

There are so many things around how people often respond to suicidal feelings that really, really don’t help with this. Here’s a non-exhaustive list. Calling it selfish. Focusing on how suicide would harm other people. Demanding that you get meds so as to not make the other person uncomfortable. Shutting you down when you try and talk about what you’re feeling because it makes them uncomfortable to hear it. What all of this does, is to make the suicidal person the least important person in what’s happening.

If you’re staying alive so as not to inconvenience someone else or to avoid upsetting someone, this is not a strong position to be in. Whether it’s ok to keep living or not becomes an equation in which you weigh their comfort against what you do. The worse you feel, the more depressed and stuck you are, the harder it gets to persuade yourself that the upset you’d cause by leaving is not in fact greater than the harm you cause by staying. When you’re feeling awful about yourself, it is hard to see your existence as anything other than innately toxic.

If you want to feel comfortable dealing with someone who wants to die, you are not the best person to be talking to them. That might feel uncomfortable, but I think we need to ask people who are largely ok to think carefully about how they prioritise themselves when dealing with people who are desperately ill and in massive distress.

If you want to keep someone alive, you may have to engage with what’s going on for them, and that may hurt. Consider whether it hurts more than the prospect of losing them. Consider what you can say or do to boost their sense of self-worth so they might want to live for their own sake. If you make it about you, then you may well be piling on the pressure and adding to their stories about how little their own life is worth.


Keep Rolling

Music has a singular power to get through to a person, to impact on our feelings and to keep us going. You can carry a song silently within you, and it can be a powerful talisman, a motivator, a comfort.

It’s been a tough week – with a vast amount of bodily pain and significant amounts of anxiety, and now the cold, wet blanket that is depression. There have been two songs I’ve been holding on to.

This is one of them – a traditional style song from Show of Hands.

 

The other song was one Professor Elemental performed live in Stroud, and the lyrics about acceptability are a powerful antidote to the things happening inside my head when I’m not well.


Getting my brain back

One of the things I particularly struggle with around depression and anxiety is the way both of these things impact on my ability to think. When I’m suffering, I lose focus and my concentration is greatly impaired. It takes me longer to do everything, I have fewer ideas, and I’m less confident in my judgement. Of course when everything takes longer, there’s less time for rest or for good stuff, which makes the depression and anxiety worse. A vicious circle forms.

Not being able to think well in recent months has flagged up to me how invested I am in my mental function as part of my identity. I had made a number of work choices based on a belief that I would be clever enough to juggle it all. At the start of September I was working eight different small, part time jobs, because with no idea how the finances were going to work after an unexpected upheaval, I said yes to everything that came in. I put one of those jobs down quickly. Several of the others had steep learning curves and a lot to take in, so the autumn was challenging.

At Christmas I put down what was identifiably the smallest job – some marketing work I’d been doing for a couple of authors. Happily, I was able to point out to them where their own strengths were and how best to go forward and I think they’ve being handling it well since then. I think it was the right time for all of us to reconsider my role.

I came into January with six jobs, coping better and doing more several of them, but still struggling to think. I started to feel like it was me – that I couldn’t cope with forty hour weeks, and that the problem was my own poor mental health. I struggled on, with things getting harder day by day. I reduced my hours on one of the jobs, and got very little benefit from that. By early February, everything was reducing me to tears and I knew I was in trouble. I put down two of the jobs – two that were interlinked. I had got to the point of feeling that I just couldn’t do it anymore, and the fear of breaking down in tears when dealing with people had become a serious thing. At that point I was still afraid that the problem was me, and that I would stay where I was.

In the few weeks since then, I’ve become calmer. I’m still working very long hours, because there are jobs I need to finish. But, this week, my brain started working again. I’ve become faster and more confident, and that in turn has lifted and cheered me. I like myself better when my mind is sharp. I may now be able to create a virtuous circle and get back on my feet again.

What I’ve learned from this is that I can work 40-50 hour weeks and be mentally viable. What I find hard is having to shift between lots of different, often unrelated jobs, but, if everything else is ok, I can do that. Where I have clarity about what I’m supposed to be doing and the room to get on and deliver, I have managed. What I can’t deal with is uncertainty, fast moving goalposts and frequent changes of direction. I don’t know that I could do one 30 hour a week job in that sort of environment and stay functional.

Today I feel a bit more like a person I can recognise. A person who can have ideas and gets stuff done. Feeling more like myself combats the depression and anxiety, and gives me more tools with which to deal with those issues. I’m lucky because I was able to put the problem job down quickly – not everyone can afford to. How many other people’s mental health issues are simply a consequence of their economic circumstances, the lack of control they have over their lives, the pressures created by their workplaces and the huge feelings of uncertainty created by the ill considered choices of governments?


Landscapes of the mind

The way in which we use the language of ‘up’ to express positivity has been on my mind since I read Ecolinguistics (review here). Moving forward, going up, rising – these are all presented as good things both in mental health, and in other aspects of western, capitalist society. Growth has to go up to be good. Sales going up are good – and no matter the reason or the cost.

I can experience entering a state of depression as a sinking feeling or a fall – there is a bodily sensation I associate with it that has a definite trajectory. However, that’s just the beginning, and it is normal for me to stop falling. Once I’m in depression, I may experience it as being more like a confined space that I don’t know how to leave, or a plateau in a landscape where all the colour is washed out.

Imagine only seeking an upward trajectory. That means constantly seeking a new high, and when we use that language, what is evoked is not bliss, but addiction. If you are always trying for a bigger high, you’re probably using substances, or addicted to adrenaline. In the landscape of the mind, always going higher isn’t a good thing, but we don’t talk about the process of feeling good as much as we talk about depression, so beyond the uplift of recovery, it’s not really explored.

Our natural emotional states fluctuate. Our inner landscapes tend to be like physical landscapes that have some diversity in them. We go up and down. We have awkward bits and easy bits, fertile bits and arid bits. In a physical landscape, the highest places you can go are mountains, and it is worth noting that people don’t tend to live on the tops of mountains because while they may be exciting, they are neither safe nor sustaining for us.

In a physical landscape, the furthest down you can go is into cave systems – which can be dangerous, but people have lived in caves. Down at the lowest level on the ground tends to be where you find the most fertile soils and the river valleys that have supported human civilizations for a very long time. Low ground tends to be suitable for us, sustaining and inhabitable. Has the metaphor broken down now, or is there more to it?

We use ‘high’ and ‘low’ to describe power, status and value. High is always good, low is always bad. Even when we’re talking low cost to the buyer, we all know that it means a lack of quality, it’s the crappy stuff for the poorer people. In terms of our inner states, high and low are both problematic. Most of us do not thrive when living at emotional extremes.

Sometimes, the dark journeys through the cave systems of our mind are necessary. The Dark Night of the Soul is a spiritual experience. Sometimes we have to break down to break through. Our ‘negative’ emotions are part of a healthy and engaged response to life. Grief, fear, pain and anger aren’t things to reject, but to acknowledge as part of what it means to be human. If you care, you will also worry, and hurt and grieve. We would be better off if we did not treat our own ‘low’ places as states to avoid, but were able to make room for them.


Being crap together

Being professional means putting a brave face on it, feigning competence when you feel you have none. Smiling at people because it’s your job to smile at people and not because anything inside you feels like smiling. It’s not necessarily just a work issue. Maybe in your family you are the one who is always calm, clever, able to figure stuff out. Maybe in your friend circle you’re the joker, the one who cheers everyone else up.

When you’re depressed, the roles that you usually play can feel like awkward masks. Taking the mask off and showing what’s really going on may be unthinkable. Playing the roles you’ve got when you don’t feel equal to any of them takes a toll, and that emotional cost can push you further into the dark places. Depression can tell you that no one would accept you if you took the mask off and showed them what was really going on.

What happens if we are crap together? What happens if you spend some time with other people and no one has to be clever, or shiny or on top of things? If it’s ok to be tired and have poor concentration, and the conversation lurches awkwardly and is slow and full of gaps… but those gaps aren’t awkward and no one is jumping into the spaces to make anyone else feel small or useless.

Imagine a social space where showing up as you are is totally fine. Where you sit at the table all evening and barely manage a word, but that’s ok, and no one judges you for it or makes anything of it. Imagine not having to pretend to be upbeat for the sake of those around you.

Feeling safe, feeling honest and able to be as you are is a huge gift. It is worth taking a look at the expectations we pile onto ourselves and asking if that’s really how it is. Sometimes it is worth taking the risk of showing up feeling crap and with nothing much to offer. It is always worth embracing other people’s crapness and just having space for them even when they aren’t up to much. It is a huge gift to give. Low expectations can be generous blessings in other people’s lives.

When we move away from ideas of who we are supposed to be in our social lives and make space for where we are, connections with people become deeper and more authentic. If you’ve bought into ideas about presenting as clever, successful, socially potent and all the rest of it, this is a hard crossing to make. On the other side there is more peace, ease, relief and far less stress. When we can be real with each other, when we can be crap together, the world is a far kinder place.

Depressed people are often encouraged to get over it, make an effort, give more in social situations and are often pushed (including by CBT therapy) to try and act ‘normal’. What I’ve found in practice is that if the people around you have room for you to be as you are, however gloomy that is, things get easier. Permission to be your real, hurting self and feeling seen and accepted in that state changes so much. A fake it until you make it approach does not, in my experience, fix depression. It may hide it, but it is only adding to the emotional burden. The person who can be real may find a firmer footing from which they can get back on top of their life and feel better about things.

 


Work, depression and self esteem

Here are some mechanics I have observed repeatedly in my own life, and am fairly sure I am seeing in the lives of various of my friends who suffer from depression.

Overworking → exhausted → depressed → feeling inadequate → unable to work → feeling even more inadequate → becoming even more depressed.

Or…

Overworking → exhausted → depressed → feeling inadequate → working harder → becoming even more exhausted → becoming more depressed.

When you look to work for validation, for a sense of self worth and achievement, and depression is gnawing away at your underpinnings, the odds are you aren’t going to win. But, if you don’t work (be that paid or unpaid), you get to feel even more useless. Depression is good at telling a person they are useless, worthless, unlovable, unacceptable.

Thus when depression kicks in, I turn towards work to try and feel validated. While resting might help my body, it can actually leave me more anxious and insecure than trying to crack on. Instead of turning to others around me for help and kindness, I dig in to the most utilitarian relationships. I focus on where I am most useful, not where most good flows towards me.

I’ve looked hard at the mechanics of this, as it happens in my own life and as I observe others on the same downward spirals. The conclusions I have come to are that it is very hard to get off this spiral on your own, and that once you are on it is not a good time to be dealing with the things that cause it. The real answer lies in what happens the rest of the time – how loved, supported, valued, resourced and welcome a person feels. The degree to which utility dominates relationships in the normal scheme of things. The amount of positive feedback and soul food.

This in turn leads me to thinking about how we normally treat each other. How transactional are our relationships? How much of a feeling of scarcity underpins how we treat each other? How much do we do to validate each other in the normal scheme of things? What do we do for the people around us if we suspect they aren’t ok? If we can support and validate each other on terms that are not primarily about usefulness, I suspect we can all help each other stay out of the awful downwards spirals.

There is a massive amount of power in telling someone you value them, and that their value is not conditional on what they do for you.


When to run away

Anxiety creates strong urges to run away. Perhaps some people get fight as well as flight, but I suspect that panic is more likely to just kick off the flight impulse.

A few years ago I decided to give myself permission to act on my panic. I’d been through a lot of challenging situations where I’d had to stay put, no matter what it cost me. Staying with something that has panicked you so much that you feel an overwhelming urge to flee, is something I find not only emotionally tough, but takes a toll on my body as well. Not running away increases the stress. Not manifesting the stress in any visible way creates massive tension in me.

I talked with my nearest and dearest about strategies to manage my running away. We started planning how to handle situations that looked high risk for panic. It took the pressure off considerably. I’ve had to run away from a few things, and it’s generally been a good choice.

Of course running away is only a delaying tactic for some issues. It can be expensive in other ways. I’ve had two work related panic issues in the last year. Running away from workspaces means running away from money. I’ve run away from jobs before that were making me ill, and I’ve run away from a couple of volunteering situations as well. I have learned to put my mental health first, and created a living arrangement that allows me to get out if something is making me ill.

The most recent rounds have been remarkably different however, because both times, someone else has stepped forward with a solution to help me stay. I’ve said many times that I believe in community solutions to mental health problems, but it’s a whole other thing to have someone come in and offer just that. Situations I’ve stepped away from permanently haven’t offered support or much care that I was struggling. No one was willing to do things differently to accommodate me. Sometimes, there wasn’t even anyone willing to hear what the problem was. I don’t think this is unusual – we place the responsibility for mental health problems squarely on the shoulders of the person suffering.

However, when someone else can step in with a solution, everything changes. It means feeling heard and respected, feeling valued despite these problems. It means being given the chance to work in a way that is sustainable for me. It means the work I can do is seen as worth more than the bother of changing things to keep me viable.

Many workplaces are stressful and difficult. When we expect people to just shut up and put up with it, it is inevitable that some will crack under the pressure. We’re living with a mental health crisis that has been explicitly linked to work stress (but not widely reported – it was in a chief medical officer’s report a few years ago). It’s not that startling to discover that when we take care of each other, stress may be less of an issue and people may be less at risk of anxiety and depression. Community solutions work for illness caused by collective dysfunction, if only we have the will to implement them.