Shades of Kefalonia and the reality of recovery

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A restless butterfly whirls about the pine trees; flashes of yellow and white amidst fir-clad branches. Perched atop a rocky outcrop overlooking the Ionian Sea I hear the distant murmur of surf tickling the sandy shores below. My eyes blink closed and, for the first time in what must be years, I feel completely at peace. Everything is OK.

Except it wasn’t OK.

At the apex of my sickness if someone had announced that in three years time I would happily hop on a flight to Kefalonia, by myself, to spend a week at a Greek yoga retreat with a throng of complete strangers, I’d have punched them in the nose. I truly would have believed myself a likelier candidate for space travel and being taunted with such a delicious but unrealistic dream would have infuriated me.

But I made it. Several hundred miles on from a bleary-eyed and anxious morning at Gatwick Airport I’d boarded a plane solo for the first time in years, thrown off the shackles of bad health and opened myself up to a whole seven days of new experiences, growth and, well, just good old fashioned…fun. Nestled in the idyllic paradise of Vigla Village I started to realise what recovery looks like. I allowed myself to languish in the acceptance that illness doesn’t rule my life anymore.

But I got cocky. I came home feeling invincible. I stopped bothering to do any of the things that keep me on the straight and narrow – my healthy diet degenerated, I drank more, rested less. And guess what – I wasn’t, in fact, bullet proof. A few hiccoughs at work, a disastrous romantic encounter and one house move later found me feeling less than fighting fit. Fatigue crept in. A dark cloud swept over my head. I felt awful. Not to mention incredibly foolish for daring to entertain the prospect of a new, symptom-free reality.

I pulled through. A month on as I sit tapping away at this blog, I’m feeling much better having focused on eating well, getting the right balance of rest and exercise and just giving myself time to digest various recent life events. Nourishing myself – body and mind. And simultaneously feeling pretty damn sheepish – at how naive I had been to think that chronic illness can simply vanish into the night.

My health is something I have to manage. It’s not perfect and sometimes I live alongside some pretty unpleasant ailments, aches, pains and difficulties. The ever-present spectre of tinnitus buzzes gently between my ears, intensifying in times of stress and acting as a strange sort of barometer for how well I’m looking after myself. It’s a constant work in progress and never, ever again will I allow arrogance to shake my commitment to staying well.

Fatigue and depression are dual forces of torment and destruction that can ruin lives – but they’re not unmanageable. I can honestly say that despite my struggles, I’m generally in a happy place now.

Joy finds me on a far more regular basis than gloom – and if that sparks hope for even just one reader out there walking their own dark path, I’ll be a very happy lady today.

Skinny shaming and mental health – one for the ladies

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In our shiny, digitally enhanced and airbrushed modern world, body image and poor mental health are – unfortunately – inextricably linked. I’d like to share some thoughts on one particular brand of female body shaming that often seems to slip under the radar and is still lowering self esteems and causing misery among the female population today.

Some time ago I had the misfortune of catching the film Salt on the TV. When it became obvious that Angelina Jolie’s CIA-agent-on-the-run wasn’t the most believable character  – enter gravity defying lorry hopping stunts and an immaculate hair-dye job while on the run – I turned to alternative entertainment. Twitter.

“Nothing feminine about Angelina Jolie! Far too thin!” screeched @JazzyFizzle4man. “As if Angelina Jolie can take on these guys. She is a twig. I’m calling BS,” chortled @lauramcglone. Just as I was starting to despair over AJ’s boneability, @Taff_Hollywood hit my newsfeed with: “Regardless of what anyone says, I would still do Angelina Jolie.” PHEW.

With a female lead voted sexiest woman alive more times than OK! Magazine has printed photos of Kerry Katona’s arse, sadly it’s not shocking the film’s plot was sidelined for debate on her waistline. What was dire, however, was how readily viewers aired their disgust at her lean figure. Jolie was looking a little on the gaunt side, for sure, but after training two hours a day three or four times a week for the role, she was never going to be popping out of her pencil skirt. It’s not the first time the actress has been lambasted for her size, but I have to wonder if she was tipping the other end of the scales would we be so quick to tell her that she was overweight.

Because there’s something we seem to forget when we talk about the female form. Pointing out excess weight is cruel and unnecessary, yes? So is skinny shaming.

I’ve never been a big girl, but it’s not through choice. I’m certainly not extremely thin, but in my experience people tend to assume that a slighter frame comes only from a diet of mung beans and compulsive spin classes. I find this insulting because I love food. I love food so much that if I’m not fed every two hours I lose the ability to form sentences. I refuse to go to restaurants on first dates because I know the excitement of impending culinary magic will distract me from the guy I’m there with. “I love you more than cheese” is a platitude which carries immeasurable weight coming from me, because, seriously…CHEESE.  The implication that I’d curtail this love affair to stay ‘skinny’ irritates me more than you’ll ever know.

Glorifying being skinny and fetishising thinness is never OK. I can’t even begin to describe how much work the fashion industry and media-at-large have to do before they stop peddling unrealistic body images. But not everyone under size 10 becomes an automatic role-model for thinspiration. It is possible to consume your body mass in mince pies now and again, and still naturally err on the slender side, and there’s a real tendency to underestimate how hurtful being called skinny is when you’re demonstrably lacking in so-called ‘feminine’ curves.

With this in mind, I’ve compiled a list of incidents occurring at various points in my life; that you should never mirror if you want to avoid being a dick to someone that’s smaller than you. DO NOT:

  • Utter the words “Oh but you obviously don’t eat anyway” – assuming that solids don’t generally pass my lips, even though my hair has yet to fall out and I still have gums, is annoying.
  • Physically prod the stomach area, accompanied by exclamations of “there’s nothing there!” Get off. Immediately. Would you do the same if you noticed I was packing an extra roll round my midriff? Didn’t think so.
  • Allude to inherent weakness or being scared to touch me in case I ‘snap’. Careful bitch, I could stab you with my collar bone.
  • Act like my size is so repellent it’s offensive to be seen next to me. “I’m not standing next to you in a bikini, you’ll make me look fat”, etc. How do you think I feel knowing that your curves make me look like a pre-pubescent boy? It works both ways, but evidently I’m 100 times more polite.
  • Use the words skinny, bony, stick insect or beanpole. No. Just no. STOP IT. I’m not ‘about to slip through a drain’, either.
  • Assume that a lack of blubber makes for a Siberian winter. “You must be so cold, there’s no fat on you!” LISTEN TO YOURSELF. Unless you’re comparing me to a polar bear, this is ridiculous.

So let’s all simmer down and make room for the petite amongst us (they only need a little bit of room) without pursing our lips or murmuring cruelly about ‘real women’. It ain’t good form – and in this world of oft-celebrated diversity, we can afford to remove that last barrier of acceptable prejudice.

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The meaning of life and post depression musings

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When I had clinical depression my daily life was dominated by a pervasive feeling of pointlessness. It was all-consuming, terrifying and nearly destroyed me, but I coped because I saw it simply as a symptom of an illness which I expected to completely disappear when I got better. Except it hasn’t.

While these days not every waking moment is punctuated with the feeling that we’re all just pointlessly spinning into the abyss, neither do I wake brimming with a deep sense of purpose each day, or, to be honest, any understanding of the point of my earthly existence. Was I naive to assume that once the mists of mental illness cleared my path through life would become clear and abundant with meaning?

Deciding whether or not there’s any point in going to the cinema/bowling/leaving the house at all doesn’t catapault me into an existential crisis anymore, and I can’t express how happy I am to no longer have that devil clinging to my back – but I suppose I’m a little disappointed that my brave new depression-free world isn’t as simple as I’d hoped. It turns out you actually have to work at creating meaning within your life, it doesn’t just gently drop into your lap like a whisp of dandelion fluff on a summer’s day.

I’m not religious but I’ve always envied the way faith provides comforting, iron-cast answers to the big questions – proffering meaning and purpose in the face of the worst kinds of abject cruelty and indiscriminate destruction existing in our world. One of my good friends from my University days is a devout Christian and she has mental grit and inner strength to rival a she-bear. But, alas, the God thing’s just never held water with me – so I have to place my faith elsewhere.

One thing I am getting to grips with pretty successfully in these halcyon days of better health is an ability to shake off any anxiety arising from these thoughts about why we’re all here and what on earth we’re doing. These moments of philosophical meandering rarely reach any sensible conclusion, and that’s alright. My life is pretty great in the present – and as long as I’m appreciating it in the here and now, moment to moment, it doesn’t really matter too much what it’s all about.

Is the way to avoid terminal angst over the meaning of life just to accept that there isn’t one – we’re all just floating in the void, and it’s time to get OK with that? Perhaps. Or maybe the key lies in just not caring too much either way. Now the black dog isn’t constantly snapping at my heels I can usually get through the day without some sort of hysterical crisis over what the point of my daily activities are, and maybe that’s enough for me.

Image credit: http://www.snapollie.com

Post election blues – the revolution will not be retweeted

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Almost a month ago now here in fair Blighty queues were formed, poll papers shuffled and boxes dutifully crossed. The general election 2015 ran its course and the Conservative party came to power once again. The people had spoken.

Well, some of them anyway.

Sixty-six per cent of the voting-aged UK general public cast votes on May 7 – and only 36.9 per cent of these people voted for the Tories, thus making their majority win slimmer than Posh Spice on Atkins. Ukip, the Green Party, and the Liberal Democrats all won 12 per cent, 8 per cent and 4 per cent of votes respectively – but none ended up with much more than 1 per cent of the seats. The Conservatives still managed to claim over half of the seats, and sole occupancy of Downing Street.

It was electile dysfunction at it’s finest.

Unsurprisingly, the left-wing masses are unsettled – the UK has seen widespread protest against the Conservative win, and a renewed cry to change the voting system and bring in proportional representation. Many are numb with shock and fear in the face of five more years of public service cuts.

I have to wonder, though, if the deluge of negativity and pessimism from lefties nationwide these last few weeks has been particularly helpful?

Suddenly my Facebook feed is crammed with political experts. The plethora of opinions on why the Tories are wrong/evil/misguided is vast and extraordinarily detailed. My friends have put a lot of time into their diatribes against the state – and, frankly, the constant stream of negativity and complaining is starting to get on my nerves. I’m worried too – the prospect of leaving the EU, losing the Human Rights Act and an even bigger gulf in the rich-poor divide saddens and terrifies me. But I’m painfully aware that whinging about it isn’t going to make a shred of difference. The cuts are coming.

I love an angry blog and a protest march as much as the next person, but we need to ask ourselves – is it really enough? (I’m aware of the glaring irony this statement carries as I sit typing away at my blog!) Some of the shoutiest of my friends and family are, absurdly, the ones who seem to be the least involved in any kind of social outreach, community engagement or charitable pursuit. What use is armchair activism if it isn’t followed up with, you know, activity? Social media is a fantastic mechanism for sparking debate and sharing opinions but at some point you have to actually leave the house, and take action outside of cyberspace.

So let’s see this month’s election results as a call to arms, not license to whine. Charities and social enterprises plug the holes that public services don’t have the resources to fill – and we need to be out there helping them through volunteering, fundraising and campaigning, instead of sitting behind our computer screens reposting articles about how the Tories boil cats for fun.

Engaging with the outside world through volunteering is actually proven to help alleviate depression and stress – so how about offsetting those post election blues with a few hours work at your local children’s centre?

I won’t pretend the future doesn’t look bleak for the disadvantaged and vulnerable of Britain. Throughout my struggles with chronic illness and depression I’ve always had the most incredible back up from my wonderful network of family and close friends. I doubt I would have made it even half this far without their support. So when I think about the many mentally ill or physically impaired human beings that I share this little island with, who don’t necessarily benefit from a close-knit community of loved ones, I’m at a loss as to how they’re going to get the help they need as government welfare makes a hasty retreat.

So instead of instagramming pictures of Boris Johnson’s face photoshopped onto a llama, let’s try to salvage something positive from the rubble that is British politics today – and do what we can to make the little spaces we occupy in the world better, fairer and more inclusive for everyone around us. David Cameron’s so-called Big Society has to start somewhere – let’s make it our own doorsteps.

The sound of silence

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“I don’t really listen to music. I listen to life,” mused the high-powered CEO while I desperately scanned the room for a make-shift sick-bucket. It was somewhere around 2009 and I was note-taking while my Editor interviewed a woman duller than a piece of toast. Who in their right mind chooses ‘reality’ to soundtrack their life when they could have Dylan, Waites or Springsteen?

Six years later and the idea of rejecting the radio for a moment of quiet doesn’t seem quite so vomit inducing, as I sit eating my lunch in silence, with only the occasional birdsong for company.

Lately I’ve come to the realisation that a lot of my ingrained habits, like being permanently plugged into an ipod while out walking, or aimlessly trawling through someone’s holiday snaps on Facebook, are simply that – habits. I don’t necessarily enjoy the moments I invest in them, I just use them as ways to avoid the stillness and quiet of the present moment. Silence and inactivity make me uncomfortable.

And because the last few years  have taught me not to shy away from the things that frighten me, but to turn in towards them, to confront them, I’ve been spending some time detaching from all my various pieces of technology and trying to pay more attention to the here and now – indulging in the stillness and silence rather than trying to block it out.

Except, as it turns out, when you tune out from all our modern distractions and stimulants – TV, radio, Youtube, Twitter – silence isn’t actually particularly silent at all. The world around us is abuzz with all kinds of natural melodies. The splash of a duck vaulting into the river, leaves rustling in a gentle breeze, a rickety van rumbling unsteadily down the street. Even the rhythmic strains of my own breath punctuating the quiet are actually quite pleasant to listen to when I’m paying attention to the world around me.

Being still and quiet isn’t nearly as boring as I once assumed – in fact it seems to be bringing a tangible element of calm contentedness to my life, and an appreciation for the simple things. My tendency towards boredom is evaporating.

Health coach Shayna Hiller reckons that integrating periods of stillness into your daily routine can make you happier, more relaxed, more attentive to detail, more energetic, healthier and it can even improve your immune and digestive system. I don’t plan on upping sticks and moving to a cave in the Himalayas, but if I can reap all these benefits from the simple act of unplugging from life’s distractions every now and then, I’m all for it.

And perhaps one day it might be my turn to be stared at with disdain by someone young and naive, as I praise the virtues of turning off the radio/TV/smart phone and ‘listening to life’.

GUEST POST: On beating cancer and depression – how adversity can be your friend

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Written and kindly donated by Jenny.

Hi everyone, I’m here to talk about how great my life is.

…No wait! Don’t switch off! This isn’t going to be a showreel of my highlights (you get enough of those on your Facebook news feed, right?). The fact is, I used to suffer from severe depression and anxiety, and I’ve been on one hell of a journey to get to where I am today – which is feeling more stable, secure and successful than I have at any point in my life before.

There was no sudden revelation; my recovery was a gradual process – and it began, of all things, with me being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.

It was serious stuff. The cancer was stage four. It had spread all through my abdominal cavity and was slowly suffocating my internal organs. I was told I’d need to have an enormous surgical procedure, involving the removal of several internal organs, plus chemotherapy, or else face a slow and incredibly painful death.

The treatment process, they said, would itself be slow and incredibly painful – but at least I stood a good chance of coming out of it alive.

When I was diagnosed, and subsequently given the news that I would become infertile as a result of the surgery – which, by the way, I’d have to wait six months for, I was quite sure I’d fall apart.

Except I didn’t fall apart. In fact it was quite the opposite; I pulled myself together.

Unexpectedly, some kind of inner strength – or more accurately, inner stubbornness – kicked in, and I decided I wasn’t going to let this thing beat me. I just had to dig my heels in, grit my teeth and get through the next six months.

Depression, which for me had always felt like a kind of spiritual death, had floored me time and again… yet here I was, staring actual, physical death in the face and holding my ground.

My new-found stalwartness came as a surprise to pretty much everyone I knew, myself included. But looking back, I realise there were two important elements to which I owed my stoic attitude. The first was hope: I’d been offered a clear solution (the surgery) and that meant there was a light at the end of the tunnel. The second was that my problem was tangible, physical and very specific.

This sat in stark contrast to the intangible, implacable and seemingly hopeless/endless tangle of anxiety and depression that had beleaguered me for the previous two decades. Suddenly, I had a problem that people understood. Suddenly I had a problem I didn’t feel ashamed to talk about. I could ask people for their support and their patience, and receive it, no questions asked. People sympathised. They didn’t tell me to pull myself together, they didn’t tell me maybe I should get more fresh air or stop overthinking things or make me feel guilty and pathetic when I said I didn’t feel like meeting up. They were forgiving when I snapped at them, understanding when I cancelled social plans, and eager to come and see me when I needed cheering up.

Having that level of support from friends, family and co-workers helped to make my situation much more manageable. I didn’t suffer the same overwhelming feeling of ‘alone-ness’ that depression had always conferred on me.

The months passed. I carried on with life as normally as I could. During that time, on more than one occasion I briefly lost my grip and broke down, but never for more than a couple of hours at a time. Then came the big surgery and subsequent hospital stay – which were worse than I could ever have possibly imagined. Not only for the physical pain I endured, but also the horrible mental ‘blackness’ and semi-psychosis that gripped me, due to a combination of the meds I was given and the awful physical discomfort I was in. But I got through it all, and made a remarkably swift recovery – I was back at work within three months (albeit several organs lighter).

Since then, having been through two of the worst things that can happen to a person – severe depression, and severe cancer – I’ve often held the two diseases up against each other and compared them. And I’ve come to the following conclusions:

  1. For me, depression was a worse experience than cancer. Yep. Worse.
  1. However, if I can get through stage 4 cancer, I’m pretty sure I can get through anything.

Having that renewed faith in myself and my ability to cope with what life throws at me has been the number one contributing factor in my gradual recovery from depression and anxiety. It has also set in motion a chain reaction; it’s given me the courage and confidence to make a series of changes in my life, the combination of which has created a much more pleasant day-to-day existence for me. These days I work part-time, and from home. I have no horrendous commute to contend with every day, and I have plenty of spare time in which to indulge my biggest passion (making music). I live modestly, but not uncomfortably. I’ve got myself a couple of lovely furry pets, which provide both company and entertainment. I’ve moved to a nice quiet area where many of my good friends and family members are no more than a 20-minute drive away.

I’m not going to tell you that these days, I wake up every morning full of song, and simply bursting with gratitude at being alive, as many people who have ‘cheated death’ have a slightly irritating tendency to say. Basically life has settled back into being, well, just life. And sometimes life involves waking up in a terrible mood, or getting in a strop because there’s no milk in the fridge, or hating the guy in the car behind who is driving too close, or having a fat day, or a non-productive day, or a just-leave-me-the-fuck-alone day.

What I can tell you that my life after cancer is altogether different from the one I had before. I’ve changed my attitude to work and relationships, built in more time for fun and creativity, and stopped comparing myself so much with other people.

The number one best thing I feel I’ve given myself is space. Physical, mental, spiritual and emotional space. I’ve stripped away all of the things that weren’t really important to my life. Some of them used to feel important – like keeping up with my peers, and earning as much money as possible – but they just don’t anymore. And funnily enough, I’ve gone from always envying the lives of others to feeling like I’m now the one with the enviable life.

A simple, uncluttered, creative existence is what keeps me happy and healthy. I was in my early 30s when I finally figured it out, which isn’t too bad I guess… although it does kind of make me wish I’d had cancer when I was a lot younger! It seems adversity can turn out to be your closest ally, in the end.

Lads and lexapro – men get depressed too

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Not long ago I attended a hen do, where after a few cocktails and some loosened tongues, it transpired that over 50% of the group were taking antidepressants. Even someone with maths skills as questionable as mine can figure out that’s an astonishingly large chunk of the room.

I’ve never had any problems talking to other women about my past anxiety and depression issues – in fact very often instigating such a conversation has led to some knowing nods, the sharing of similar experiences, and maybe even a few tears and a cuddle. It’s comforting, cathartic and a really important part of the healing process.

My male friends that have experienced anxiety and depression issues (not many, that I’m aware of anyway) have been a lot less open about their difficulties. Often I’ve only learned of the problem after the worst of it has passed, or through a flurry of emails or text messages. Talking face-to-face about emotional stuff has never been a strong suit for the dudes in my life.

I could burn a hole in my keyboard ranting about all the different corners of life and modern society in which men have unfair advantages and privilege – but mental health isn’t one of them. We are failing men that fall into the mental illness abyss. Overall there are fewer men than women who suffer from anxiety disorders and clinical depression, but those that do are at much higher risk of killing themselves – the male rate of suicide in the UK has increased significantly since 2007 and in 2013 78% of all UK suicides were in men.

It’s a bizarre gender paradox – with women experiencing higher rates of suicide ideation, and actually attempting suicide more than men; and yet we end up with men being those most likely to successfully take their own lives. What happens in-between the onset of male depression and these tragic deaths? Not enough talking, certainly.

It’s widely accepted that a higher proportion of women will go through clinical depression in their lifetime, than men. Hormones, people. Balancing child-birth and motherhood with trying to have a career. THE PATRIARCHY. The amount of crap we have to put up with in modern society means it’s hardly surprising that so many women turn to happy pills – and this acceptance of our vulnerability makes it easier to talk about things like depression. It’s easier to ask for help.

Not so for men, who are still generally expected to lock up their emotions and get on with it. Sensitivity in men is still construed as weakness. Even I’ve been guilty of jokingly telling a friend to ‘man up’ before, such is the ingrained nature of our societal disdain for male emotional expression and loss of control – qualities we associate with women. Most guys don’t openly talk about their feelings with each other, in the same way that females do, and depression and dark thoughts can fester until they reach crisis point.

However the stereotype that men don’t want to ask for help can’t be very accurate – you just have to look at the number of calls fielded by helplines for men, set up by organisations like Campaign Against Living Miserably – a charity dedicated to preventing male suicide in the UK. It’s painfully obvious that, given the right environment, dudes want to talk.

Suicide is now the biggest killer of men under 50 here in the UK. Even while truck-loads of artery-clogging bacon sandwiches are scoffed every day, and mind-bogglingly dangerous drivers freely roam the roads, this is what’s killing our men. It’s staggering.

We need to get more comfortable with men exploring their emotional needs and better managing their own mental health, especially in the face of continued mental health cuts across the NHS. If we can get more men to talk more about how they feel; go public with their issues and share their experiences of anxiety and depression, not only would this be a direct challenge to the stigma that hounds male mental illness but it might just help to save the lives of other men that are suffering in silence.

Depression, flight 9525 and the media – stigma sticks

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“Killer pilot suffered from depression.”

“Depressed German deliberately flew into mountain.”

“Suicide pilot had a long history of depression – why on earth was he allowed to fly?”

By now you’d have to have been trapped deep in the wilderness in a cave guarded by angry honey badgers not to know that Andreas Lubitz – the Germanwings pilot responsible for last week’s tragic plane crash – had previously suffered from a mental illness. These tabloid headlines build a very simple equation for the public masses clamouring to know how anyone could carry out such a monstrous act – depression equals danger.

This isn’t just irresponsible and insensitive reporting – it’s a fantastic way to try and wipe out years of toil against mental illness stigma, through the scribble of a pen. So far all we know about Lubitz is that the police found torn up sick notes in his flat and that he was unwell in 2009 with something that may or may not have been depression. What has this meant to the papers? That 150 plane passengers were murdered by a mental illness.

One in five people will endure clinical depression at some point in their lives (I strongly believe this figure could be much higher – stigma makes many hide their illness). That’s around 350 million depressives worldwide. One of them has crashed a plane which is, obviously, horrific. That doesn’t mean everyone else suffering from the illness is a potentially murderous risk to the safety of the public at large – we mustn’t confuse a terrible, debilitating mental health condition with motive to do harm.

I can’t, and I won’t, speculate on why this man took down a plane full of innocent human beings. The truth is we’ll probably never know what was behind his actions. Did something slip through the net during his health check-up? Don’t know. Was he actually supposed to be signed off work sick? No idea. Was he harbouring secret mass murder plots hatched between himself and his pet hedgehog, Wolfgang? I know more about nuclear fission than I do this subject. What I do know, however, is that massive headlines equating past experience of mental illness with colossal risk is misleading and dangerous. In the case of depression, stigma literally costs lives.

I hated listening to the news when I was clinically depressed a few years ago. Not that I particularly enjoy the relentless barrage of negativity now, but a few years ago when I was poorly the radio bulletins literally felt like a physical assault on my ears. I’d hear tales of misery from war-torn countries and wonder what the point of living in such a terrible world was. I’d see the story about the mentally ill mother who killed herself and her two children and feel the white-hot creep of terror that my illness might turn me into someone like that. If something like this had hit the headlines while I was in the throes of self-esteem-eroding, guilt-soaked and paranoia-laden mental illness I know I would have really struggled. People with depression can already feel (totally illogically) that they’re bad people, a danger to society or just generally incapable of carrying out the simplest of tasks without cocking it up. When they see these darkest fears confirmed in bold newspaper print, instead of laughing it off as bad journalism they may well believe it and just sink further into self doubt.

I have many friends and family members that have lived through depression and currently hold down all kinds of positions of responsibility. They’re doctors, teachers, support workers, entrepreneurs and CEOs. I work in a children’s centre. We’re all fantastic at our jobs.

I don’t know what the protocol for pilots that are in the middle of mental health treatment is – of course the assessment for those in charge of safely transporting us across the skies should be rigorous and examined on a case-by-case basis. Should anyone that’s currently suffering from severe depression with brain fog, poor concentration, exhaustion, back pain and all it’s other varied symptoms be flying a plane? Of course not. Clinical depression is a physical illness too – I could barely safely drive a car when I was at my worst, let alone a plane. But there’s a vast difference between responsible reporting about a man who was suffering from an ‘unspecified illness’ who perhaps should have been signed off sick, to making a broad and generalised link between someone having ‘a history of depression’ and the idea that they shouldn’t have been in employment.

People make full recoveries from depression all the time. It’s actually likely that they go on to become healthier, more useful individuals than those never bitten by the black dog – facing the future with a new perspective and better ways to manage stress. I never really paid much attention to my health before I became depressed – now I’m uncompromising about looking after myself, and this has a positive ripple effect across my life, relationships and capability in the workplace.

Linking experience of depression with risk and danger isn’t just irresponsible, it doesn’t make any sense. Someone in full remission from cancer wouldn’t be expected to taper their career and general life expectations – depression is no different. The last twenty years or so have seen a surge in public acceptance of depression as what it is – a horrible and indiscriminate illness that can affect anyone, anywhere, that you can completely recover from – but judging by this last week’s press, we still have a long way to go.

Plate smashing and murder at the swimming pool – dealing with anger

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“Bugger off I’m MEDITATING!” I yell, in a tone not dissimilar to a grizzly bear, as my teeth grind in frustration and  steam begins to gently hiss from my ears. Whoever had just hesitantly tapped on my bedroom door retreats quietly in fear, and it’s at this point I realise that perhaps, just maybe, my quest for inner zen isn’t working as well as I’d hoped.

Everyone battles with nasty feelings of anger and frustration every now and then – it’s part of life. Traffic jams, messy inconsiderate flatmates, unanswered text messages, Boris Johnson – we all have our trigger points. But if you’re dealing with depression, anxiety or plain old chronic fatigue (or all three) the chances are that anger plays a much larger role in your daily life than is healthy, and if it’s not managed, it can cause a lot of problems.

At the height of my worst ever tangle with the black dog, I recall one day seriously debating whether or not I should leave the house and go for a swim at the local pool, because I felt like I was ‘dangerous’. That’s how angry I felt. I was genuinely worried that my simmering, impotent rage was a hazard to civilised society – that I might end up losing control and doing some damage. I might thump the receptionist if she looked at me the wrong way, or push a pensioner over in the jacuzzi. What if someone tried to use my float while I was off perfecting my butterfly? I couldn’t be responsible for my actions with a pull buoy in my hand.

I was being ridiculous, of course. While I was unwell I was no more dangerous to any member of the public than a grumpy cat is to a rhinoceros – but the anger and irritability that come with depression and exhaustion can make you numb to all that’s good and light, it can convince you that you hate everything and everyone, and it can make you doubt yourself in ways you never thought possible. It also has the capacity to turn you into a grade A bitch.

The people I love the most – a dear friend, a brother, my Mum – sometimes unwittingly become vessels into which I unload toxic irritation, frustration, anger and angst. Using your nearest and dearest as multiple punching bags is not cool, I’m well aware. But sometimes every innocent word that tumbles out of their mouth becomes irritating and rage inducing, through no fault of their own – ‘What are you up to today?’ may as well be ‘I broke into your house and painted the walls with cat shit’. You want to deck them for simply having the audacity to start a friendly conversation with you.

At times like this I know I’m being cruel and unloving, but unlocking the part of myself that knows how to reach out and be affectionate, kind and contrite feels like an impossible task. ‘Say you’re sorry! Tell them you really don’t mean to be such a heartless bitch…tell them you LOVE them and you’re only acting this way because you’re hurting,’ is what my heart shrieks desperately to my brain, but I must have some loose wiring somewhere because I never seem able to spit these words out in the heat of the moment.

When anger strikes, avoiding behaving like a petulant child and alienating everyone that cares about you can be so damn hard. But if you’re looking for ways not to end up a social pariah, you can always remember that however hard life is for you right now, it’s pretty crap for your friends and family too – and not just because you’re being about as friendly as an iceberg. It’s truly terrible seeing someone you care about in pain, especially when you don’t know how to help them, or feel like they won’t let you try. I know that all my parents especially have ever wanted is to see me happy, and when I lash out in anger and misery I don’t just hurt myself – I hurt them too. Knowing this is good motivation to hold my tongue when I’m feeling crabby.

And there are always plates. I’ve always said there’s an untapped market for plate smashing therapy rooms at Ikea – you’d be amazed at the simple, glorious joy to be found in buying a £3 bargain box of plates only to go somewhere private and smash the hell out of each and every one of them.

Ultimately, though, all the anger management in the world won’t stop the occasional slip-up. The unnecessary snide comment, the over-reactive retort or the cruel put-down…all because your anger has nowhere else to go.

Which is why I’m going to take a few deep breaths and chase after whoever it was that unintentionally interrupted my peace and incurred my wrath. Because they probably only came knocking to see how I am. Because it’s not their fault I’m in a stinking mood. Because even though I don’t particularly feel like being nice, I don’t particularly feel like closing the door on my loved ones either. One day they might just stop knocking.

Antidepressants – why yours is the only vote that counts

antidepressants

My last GP appointment went something like this:

 

Me: ‘So…you asked me to come in for a review. To be honest I’m not really sure if the antidepressants do anything positive for me. There’s really no way of knowing… I’m pretty aware of all the side effects though.’

GP: ‘How do you feel?’

Me: ‘OK I guess. Pretty tired but getting on with things. I get stomach trouble, hypoglycemia and a lot of weirdness going on with my vision though…’

GP: ‘Those seem like reasonable side effects,’

Me: Awkward silence.

GP: ‘I think stay on them’. *writes prescription* ‘I’ve set your next review for January…’
January 2016.

 

Yep, just keep taking the pills and come back IN A YEAR.

It was at this point that I finally, truly realised, once and for all, that when it comes to making decisions about happy pills I really am on my own. My various doctors have always been very happy to dish out SSRI prescriptions for me, but I’ve generally been met with a wall of silence when it comes to proffering an opinion on whether or not they may be doing any good.

I get it. Coming off medication always presents risks – one of which being the patient slipping back into poor mental health and ending up at the bottom of a river. An extremely unlikely scenario for sure, but still one which must weigh heavily on the conscience of any medical professional dealing with those sick with depression. I can see why it’s easier to just keep writing prescriptions – and perhaps that’s why antidepressant use is sky-rocketing in this country.

In England more than 50 million prescriptions for antidepressants were issued in 2013 – in Blackpool the problem deepens with a staggering one adult in every six snapping up a prescription for these pills each month. They’re everywhere. If you don’t know at least one person within your social circle that takes some form of antidepressant medication regularly, I’d be very surprised.

When you’ve fallen down a mental illness hole you’re desperate. You need solid advice, guidance, empathy and compassion. These are things I’ve always been lucky enough to receive from doctors when I’ve been depressed or anxious. In desperate, vulnerable times I have clung to the medical profession as an anchor of hope, and it’s got me through.

But what about that slippery, grey area that emerges a bit further down the road – when you’re well into recovery mode and you need to make some decisions about how to sensibly move forward with your health? When you begin to feel whole again, should you keep on popping the pills or try to wean yourself off and go it alone?

You’d think that determining whether something you put in your body every day actually makes you feel better or not would be a relatively simple task. Somehow, it’s really not.

Ultimately you’re the only one that can figure it all out. Doctors, friends, family, lovers and pet aardvarks can all offer their opinions but no-one can actually climb inside your brain and ascertain what you really need. The only person that can decide if you’re strong enough to make some changes to your treatment plan, might benefit from a break from chemical intervention or can’t put up with unwanted side effects any longer, is you.

Some will caution against cutting back on antidepressants too soon – that you’ll erase all the good work they’ve done and could fall back down the hole. It’s a reasonable worry to have. But there are arguments against staying on these types of medications long-term too – such as psychological dependence and harm to your baby during pregnancy. They’ve even been linked to type 2 diabetes.

There’s a lot of conflicting information at our fingertips when it comes to antidepressants and not a lot of help to make sense of it. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut – and that’s not just a pun on the delightful array of gastrological symptoms that can arise from SSRI use.

I will stress (here comes the disclaimer, kids) that you should NEVER stop taking antidepressants without consulting your doctor, and if you do decide you want to come off them you need to do it gradually. Stopping these sorts of pills cold turkey is dangerous, not to mention all kinds of unpleasant. Withdrawal is not something you want to mess with, believe me.

We’re all special, different, unique little creatures – and we all respond differently to things like antidepressants. For some they can be literally lifesavers – life enhancing wonder-drugs that beat the black dog back from their door. For others like me it call all be a bit, well, ‘meh’.

That’s not to say that just because I can’t seem to see palpable changes to my health, that the drugs don’t work. I’ve been on a gradual upwards gradient over the last year and perhaps antidepressant use has played a role in that. For now I’m not planning any drastic changes – but I don’t plan to stop asking these sort of questions any time soon either.