Month: April 2012

You don’t have to be mad to work here

Throughout the ups and downs of my illness I’ve always managed to keep myself in work or study and this is something I’m actually quite proud of (which is pretty big in itself, because I don’t say things like that very often). In saying so I don’t mean to cast any aspersions whatsoever on those with similar difficulties who can’t manage work during their bleak times. Perhaps I just count myself lucky that things have never got quite so bleak for me.

Work is incredibly important to me, both professionally and personally. In terms of the struggles I’ve had with myself working has had a huge role to play. Being at work brings shape and focus to the disorder; it gives me a reason to get out of bed, paint a smile on my face and laugh at the (not always) hilarious office japery; most importantly of all, it provides company in an otherwise lonely place. Being at work is part of my strategy for making sure I never unravel completely no matter what’s going on.

As noted in previous instalments, during my recent ‘bad patch’ I started carrying some of my chaos to work with me. This was the first time that had happened and was a big cause for concern. So much so, that I began to wonder whether it was time to do something I had never considered before and let my employer in on my secret. It seemed like a sensible idea. I was reaching out in every possible direction to put in place as much support in place as I possibly could (which is exactly the right thing to do). At the same time, the decision to tell an employer something like that about yourself is huge and not one that should be undertaken lightly.

Suffering from depression is nothing to be ashamed of, let’s be quite clear about that. At the same time, it is a private matter (said whilst blogging, I see the contradiction) and certainly not an easy thing to disclose to colleagues. People have a variety of views and opinions about mental health difficulties, and there is still a considerable amount of stigma attached. I knew that I worked in a good place with good people but still felt there was something of a risk associated with discussing my problems in the workplace.

In the end I weighed up the risks and balanced them up against the risks associated with the place that I was heading to – essentially becoming too ill to work. I’ve already mentioned how important the structures associated with working have been to me over the years and in the end I decided that if I had a choice it was something of a Hobson’s choice.

And so, I took deep breath and referred myself to our Occupational Health team. My aim was to ensure that I was well enough and stayed well enough to stay at work. At the same time I sent my sent my referral form to my line manager and the senior manager responsible for my team – it seemed important that I spoke to some of my more immediate colleagues about the practicalities of my day to day work which had become a little chaotic.

Fast forward two weeks and I’m pleased to say that far from taking a risk I absolutely made the right decision. My colleagues have been incredibly supportive without treating me any differently ( a big concern me) and, have been willing to work with me to review my workload and get some support in place to make sure I continue to contribute without becoming overwhelmed.

The fact that you suffer from depression isn’t ever going to be something that you want to shout from the rooftops. At the same time it shouldn’t become a dirty little secret. Support is out there, you do just have to find the courage to start reaching out and taking it.

How to lose friends and alienate people

As I’ve already mentioned somewhere, things have been pretty desperate for me for a while now. I’d done a remarkably good job of building walls up around myself and was well and truly stuck at the bottom, spinning wildly and reaching for calm but finding none. Things had got so bad that I’d forgotten everything I knew about managing my ever-present dark passenger: I was at the end of my rope, and had a very strong and persistent desire to end my life.

Somehow though, I carried on getting myself to work and getting through each day, and for a little while it continued to be a distraction between the hours of nine and five. As time went on, the gradual creep that had characterised my depression ‘behind closed  doors’ started to crowd in during the working day as well. Rather than work being a distraction I started to feel distracted at work. I became slower at doing things than normal and far less organised, started putting off difficult tasks, and even began to avoid conversations with colleagues.

That I should come unstuck at work filled me with familiar and self-perpetuating fear, guilt and blame. I felt beaten and didn’t know what to do next (An old maxim for me at my worst being ‘I simply cannot see where there is to get to’ (Sylvia Plath)). It seemed to me that decline at work was the beginning of round two in me versus me, and I wasn’t at all sure I was up for the fight, which in my mind was another reason for giving up the good fight altogether.

I limped on for a little while through the second wave. I was aware that things were going badly wrong, but was impotent in the face of it. It was all I could do to get through the motions (the motions being getting up, showering, getting to work, doing my work, coming home and getting to bed) and I felt I had become incapable of doing anything beyond that. When at home I cried a lot, did a lot of pacing around and spent the rest of the time lying in a prone position waiting for the darkness to pass. That was the story of my life for about three months.

And then came a particularly gruelling day when I finally hit the bottom of my pit. I’ve thought long and hard about whether the details of my ‘rock bottom day’ are suitable material for my blog and have decided that all I’m willing to say is that it was gruelling and it was rock bottom. It was bad and beyond that, I guess I’m what saying is that you can take my word for it.

I woke the next morning with the usual feeling – part guilt, part dread, part regret but over the next few hours the feeling began to change. It was still guilt, dread and regret, but it started taking on a new quality. It was directed not only at myself but also at the two significant people who had been on the receiving end of a very frightened, desperate and selfish me the preceding day. Worth noting, I think, my view that empathy is an unusual feeling in the depressed, not because depressed people are bad people but because depression is so personal and inward that thoughts of its impact on those around you are simply not available.

My descents into the pit have almost always followed the same pattern from start to finish, but particularly towards the finish. In my experience you eventually hit absolute zero and are faced with a simple fight or flight decision, after all, you’ve decided you can’t get any lower and it’s a blatant and straightforward choice after that. Don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s as if sense finally kicks in.

In terms of how I was feeling about myself, I think I’d been flat-lining for months, so there was no bottom to be found there (those who know me well, will know it was all I could do not to squeeze a lame bum related joke in there*). Instead it was in terms of my relationships with others that I eventually found the bottom. Knowledge of the distress that I was causing, and let’s face it, the damage that I was doing to two very important relationships forced me to think about the potential outcomes. Either these people were going to receive a very unpleasant piece of news and I was never going to see either of them again, or I was going to try to get back to myself and then get to know them over again with a well head on my shoulders and plenty of other things going on beyond an illness that has dogged me too long.

When I started writing this blog I was simply sending some thoughts into the ether – I wasn’t writing to or for anyone but myself. Nothing’s changed, except that the last little bit of this post was written fondly for people I know well. It’s a thank you and apology rolled into one. It’s a little nod towards what they have done for me and an indication that I’m finally ready to start taking over the reins again. And now normal service will be resumed.

I’m aware that this one is a little meandering, but I got to where I was going in the end, and the back story was important, I think.

*But then I went and did it anyway, in a roundabout kinda way

Holiday blues

Weekends – the best part of the week, right? And even better when you’ve an extra day off work to make for a long weekend, surely? Maybe not….

During my recent bad patch, I’ve rather taken against the idea of weekends and time to myself. Time to myself has been about introspection, impotence and crippling sadness. Weekends have been about giving in, and accepting that if you don’t want to get out of bed and face the day, not having to get out of bed provides the perfect reason not to. If you see what I mean.

This weekend was always going to be interesting – it was the first one since I took some positive steps towards climbing out of my pit and the first since the medication I’m taking started to kick in. Those things together meant I was in a slightly better place and wasn’t approaching the break with the usual sense of panic and dread. At the same time I was aware that taking an extra day off, so early in the process, could well be a challenge too far for someone, who although a little braver, was still ultimately fragile.

My challenges for the weekend were mostly administrative. Things have gone to rack and ruin so there’s a lot to put back together. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a plan for getting through Friday, just a vague sense of some of the things I wanted to get done and, because of this, the day descended, quite quickly into me variously curled up in a ball or pacing around the flat telling myself I was going to be okay. Somehow though I found myself again and achieved two small things (ordering some shopping and making a phone call) which were enough to restore a sense of calm – a sense that I’d had a setback but that I was still, nevertheless, moving forward.

By the time I went to bed on Friday I had a good list ready for Saturday and alongside this my plan was to change the routine by simply approaching it in a different order and in a different way.

Saturday came and went. I stuck to my plan and followed my list. I had a few wobbly moments but nevertheless almost everything on my list was achieved; not just the administrative and functional things I felt I needed to, or should do, but some of my ideas of things I could do (or things that I wanted to do) as well. By the time the evening came around I’d done some reading, taken a nice hot bath and gone for a walk, albeit in the rain. And here’s the thing. I spent the whole day without retreating from myself at all, in fact, the only thing I was retreating from on Saturday was the weather. I went to bed with the feeling that I had enjoyed (yes enjoyed) a comparatively productive day and perfectly pleasant cosy evening to myself.

I woke up on Sunday with a certain sense of determination. I had proven to myself that I was capable of spending a day alone without leading myself to the cliff edge and thinking about jumping off. Moreover, the chaos that had backed up in the practical areas of life was beginning to return to some semblance of order. I had another list and another plan (well, actually it was the same plan, but you know what I mean).

Again I followed my list a stuck to my plan and with a few more wobbles along the way, primarily because I particularly hate Sundays, I managed to achieve every single thing on my list. In the end the day was spent getting things done, taking care of myself and diverting myself away from the cliff. By the time I was done I felt a lot more settled and less anxious for it. Sunday evening was spent in much the same way as Saturday evening, feeling safe and comfortable without my dark passenger getting in the way too much.

Refusing to accept the behaviours associated with depression and where they put you sometimes isn’t enough, I know that and I need to start working on the strategies for the next time that huge and resounding ‘no’ begins again. Still, for the time being it is enough and things are kinda working out okay.

All the small things

I’m conscious that the lists I mentioned in my earlier post must seem rather small to a ‘normal person’ (it’s okay, I’m the one with mental health issues – I’m allowed to indulge in a little bleak humour if I feel like it) and to be honest, they’d probably seem quite small to me if I were feeling a little better. But I’m not feeling a little better quite yet and they’re about as big as I can get. For now.

Depression brings with it all kinds of negative thinking  – paralysing feelings of hopelessness, an overall sense of dread and rather distressing thoughts of self harm to name a few – but none are more damaging that the guilt and shame that you somehow end up heaping upon yourself during a low period. The smallest of ‘failures’ is turned into a major catastrophe in the blink of an eye and the guilt and shame that you feel in light of this self imposed fail mark is enough to render you utterly defeated and send you yet deeper into the mire.

With this in mind, it important that, as I try to reach in a pull myself out of my pit, I don’t set myself unrealistic targets. What I’m actually  trying to do is build achievements little by little without the prospect of guilt looming large and challenging my progress.  So yes, the things on my lists (from here on in to be known as the ‘small things’ lists) seem fairly insignificant in the main scheme of things but I refer you to the wise words of Vincent Van Gogh:

‘Great things are done by a series of small things brought together’

So my take on it all is…. what he said.

Is seems like a good time to review my progress with the small things lists. It’s not looking too bad really (note the things I’d like to do are a little longer term so nothing to report just yet):

Three things I need to do:

  1. Visit my friend and her new baby: In the diary.
  2. Get a haircut: Well no, not yet. But then I haven’t decided what I want to do with it yet.
  3. Make a new Spotify playlist: Most definitely in progress. It’s going to be a masterpiece so may take a while to complete.

Three things I like doing:

  1. Walking in pretty places: Did you see the weather this weekend?!
  2. Wii Fit: Check. Three sessions under my belt.
  3. Reading: Finally got around to starting José Saramango’s Death at intervals.

I think that’s looking pretty good, no? Go me!

Being boring

One of the songs I heard on the radio this morning – courtesy of the rather marvellous Sean Keavney on the equally marvellous Radio Six Music – was one of my guilty pleasures: The Pet Shop Boys, Being Boring. If you’re not familiar with the song all I’ll say is that I suggest you acquaint yourself and leave it at that. I should confess to having something of a soft spot for the Pet Shop Boys (it’s a camp thing I think), but beyond that, the song has always resonated with me partly because it’s sad and sad always resonates, and partly because ‘being boring’ can be an outcome of depression for me.

I was a shy child and I grew up to be a shy adult; that’s just my character, and it isn’t much of a problem for me in normal circumstances. When I’m well, shyness is an obstacle I can overcome  fairly easily – I can get out to do things and socialise, I can even, on occasion, bring myself to try new things and meet new people. But when I’m not so well, the low mood and shattered confidence I experience exacerbates the problem to epic proportions. I suppose you could say that the two things – shyness and depression – come together to form a perfect storm. Here’s why….

When things get bleak, I don’t like myself very much at all, and to be fair, my company sucks. That’s barrier number one – if you can’t bear to be with yourself why on earth would anyone else want to spend time with you (not an altogether illogical thought process). After a little while with my dark passenger on board, I start to resemble what my mum would describe as ‘death het up’. I’m not eating well and I’m usually not sleeping so I look tired and drawn. Being bothered about my appearance is beyond me and even getting a haircut is a challenge too far so I also look dishevelled and worn around the edges. That’s barrier number two because I don’t want anybody to see me like that, or for that matter think that I’m really  like that (this one not quite so logical, granted). Barrier number three is the big one for me, because eventually I lose all interest in the things that usually interest me. Put bluntly, I don’t actually have anything to say apart from ‘life is unbearable for me right now and I wish I was dead’… not much of a conversation starter, eh? So, for me, all of the barriers seem to conspire to knock what is already a slightly fragile sense of confidence and increase my shyness tenfold.

By the time I’ve landed in my pit it really does feel like the only thing I can do is stay there and hide for a little while because I didn’t have the confidence to do the things I was doing in the first place. All of which just makes the barriers bigger and more difficult to break down. The challenge, of course, is to do something about all of this.

We’ve already established that I’m a little shy so I think it’s safe to say I’m not taking up speed dating any time soon. Some things, however, are more realistic and I’ve started by devising myself a couple of good old lists!

Three things I need to do:

  1. Visit my friend and her new baby
  2. Get a hair cut
  3. Make a new Spotify playlist

Three things I like doing:

  1. Walking in pretty places
  2. Wii Fit
  3. Reading

Three things I’d like to do:

  1. Join a book club
  2. Get a manicure
  3. Join a gym

Finally I’m armed with some achievable lists and I can forget about the other things that crowd my thinking for a little while. There are lots of things I could do, but right now, these are the things I’m working towards. When I start pulling them together, I’ll be socialising again, taking care of myself and maintaining some interests. Feels like a plan. I’ll let you know how I get on….

Why would you eat an elephant?!

Afrikaans: Olifantbul in die Nasionale Etoshaw...

I was 15 years old when I was first diagnosed with depression which means I have lived, side by side with my dark passenger for more than half of my life. The symptoms come and go, over a matter of days, or weeks, or latterly, over a considerable number of months.

Managing the symptoms of depression can be an all encompassing experience. When you can barely bring yourself to get out of bed or switch the kettle on, living any kind of ‘normal’ life can seem to be completely unachievable. Sometimes the worst of it can be the frustration found in the knowledge that the things you have withdrawn from because of depression – even the simplest of things, like going for a run, cooking a meal, reading a book, or, for that matter, writing a blog – are the very things that will help get you started on a path towards a better place.

Over the years, I’ve gathered a great many motivational quotes (perhaps one day I’ll post a list!). It might sound a little daft but my treasured phrases and sayings have helped drag me through some pretty low times. My favourite of all is to be found in the title of this blog: ‘how do you eat an elephant?’ The answer of course, is ‘bite by bite!’ To my mind, trying to beat depression is a lot like the thought of trying to eat an elephant. It seems like a gigantic, overwhelming and impossible task in its entirety, but perfectly digestible when approached in bite sized chunks (no elephants were harmed in the writing of this post).

And so this is the story of my attempt to eat an elephant; my story about living with, and in the fullness of time, perhaps beating depression. It will certainly be a blog about my efforts to make some positive changes to ease the symptoms, and in honesty, might also be about some of the setbacks I experience along the way.

Most of all it will be about me: a person who is much bigger than the illness I suffer from. It often seems to me that at the heart of the stigma still associated with mental ill health is an assumption that a person in mental distress is nothing more than the manifestation of their symptoms. I think this is an unfounded and completely wrong-minded notion and hope that maybe my blog can play a small part in challenging it.

Wish me luck. I’ll see you on the other side.