Doodle your way to happiness

artist

I’m about as talented as my six year old cousin when it comes to the ways of the paintbrush. But art has been incredibly therapeutic for me these last few weeks and it’s certainly healthier than burning holes in my eyeballs watching re-runs of How I Met Your Mother on my laptop.

You don’t need to be a contender for the next Turner Prize to benefit from the relaxing effects of creating art, in fact it probably helps if you’re not. All I’ve been doing is doodling with coloured pencils in a sketchbook while listening to music. I call my latest masterpiece ‘Triangle With Dot In The Middle’.

Aside from the obvious relaxation and enjoyment elements of getting in touch with your inner Michelangelo, there’s hard factual research as well. Here comes the science bit…

The best thing about something like drawing is that it’s transportative. Utterly in the moment. Being creative and using the right side of your brain means stepping away from the frazzled, thinking side of your brain and giving your body a hit of those ‘feel good’ endorphins we hear so much about from health gurus, celebrities and Steve from Coronation Street.

A recent study at Anglia Ruskin University found that drawing and painting can have a positive effect on people’s mental well-being – so if you don’t want to take the ramblings of a 27-year-old, who occasionally listens to Celine Dion, as gospel, pay attention to the academics. The results of the study showed that 88% of participants with mental health needs reported improvement in their levels of motivation and 81% reported gaining confidence after a 12 week art course.

So if you’re struggling with feeling shitty, I would thoroughly endorse switching off the TV and buying yourself some paintbrushes or pencils. And if, unlike me, you unearth some kind of hidden talent….well, don’t beat me over the head with it, OK?

Inner peas and the chemicals conundrum

yoga-cartoon

I once had a yoga teacher who was literally the poster girl for holistic, healthy living. She referred to menses as the ‘monthly moon cycle’, she was a strict vegan, a real stickler for organic foods and just generally wouldn’t let any toxins or unecessary hormones near her body. She wouldn’t even use hair dye. For a while I thought she was some sort of wellness wunderkind; until one day I caught her chain-smoking outside and realised it was largely bullshit.

I do think there’s something to be said for the relationship between environmental toxins and mood, though. I read recently that a woman’s typical morning routine exposes her to 515 chemicals before she’s even left the house. Yikes. I suspect this comprises a routine a bit more complex than my ‘soap and a slap round the face’ ritual, but still, that’s an unfathomable amount of pollutants.

Over the last few years I’ve learned through first-hand experience just how obscenely delicate the human endocrine system is. I’ve quite drastically altered my diet to de-stress my frazzled and knackered body. Brown rice over white pasta, oat cakes over chocolate, drinking my body mass in chamomile tea and so forth. And it’s worked. Obviously I still have a fair way to go, but the level of adrenaline pumping through my veins is dramatically lower than a couple of years ago and I really think what I put in my body has played a large part in this.

Also being a lady with, you know, lady bits and shit, I have the hormonal goliath of PMS to contend with every month and it’s during this fun-packed little window that watching my diet and exposure to toxic products becomes of paramount importance.

Because if something as simple as eating more sweet potatoes can have an impact on wellbeing, what might all the chemicals seeping through my skin from everyday products like moisturiser and shampoo be doing to my hormones? I’ve even started wondering if I need to look at my washing powder.

I’m not about to completely reject all man-made products and start omming on a hill, but I’ve definitely started thinking about how all the various cleansers, lotions and potions I use on a daily basis might be affecting my body, and thus my mood. Does swapping my bubble bath for organic lavender oil make me a grass chewing, chai drinking hippy? Perhaps. But if little steps like this can improve my mood in the long run then I’m all for it. I like chick peas too, deal with it.

A deal with the devil?

Gandalf

Depression is my Gandalf. Except instead of stopping me from wreaking fiery havoc upon a gaggle of hobbits (fun, but let’s face it, not really my cup of prawns) it gets in the way of things like parties, holidays and music festivals.

As I sat by my open window on Saturday, a light evening breeze tickling my face, I was so close to the music festival in full flow in the park adjacent to my flat, I could literally feel the bass line thumping through the glass. Natasha Khan’s muffled vocals drifted across the canal between me and the festival site, I could hear the crowd whooping, and I was insane with jealousy.

Giving up my festival ticket was definitely a good call. I was so exhausted, miserable and anxious that a simple lunch with friends that day had felt like medieval torture. It must sound trivial, childish, self indulgent and petty to complain about something as unimportant as missing a fun day out. I’m acutely aware it isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But for me it was the latest in a long, long line of experiences I’d had to let go in recent years because I didn’t feel up to it. And as I listened to a band I’d been wanting to see live for absolutely ages performing mere metres from my home, I felt a bit heartbroken.

There was a time when depression made me completely lose interest in the things I’d once loved, like live music, so I’m grateful to have  bypassed the crushing apathy that blights the lives of so many depression sufferers. Despite the disappointment, actually wanting to participate in life again is a big step forward.

It’s hard not to wonder what my life might have been like these last few years if I hadn’t been fighting off this illness. What experiences might I have had, what would it have been like to not miss out on so many things. What does saying ‘yes’ more than you say ‘no’ to life feel like?

The cavalcade of ‘what if’s can be a bitter pill to swallow, and when I’m feeling a bit jaded I try to recall all the positive things I’ve learned over the past few years. The life skills and knowledge that the drastic highs and lows have given me, which I’ll have forever now. The path towards a better place that I’m on, which I may have taken years longer to stumble onto had the depression road block not forced me to stop and re-evaluate my life.

At the end of the day all the missed gigs, dates, holidays, parties and work opportunities in the world aren’t as important as your health.

Depression, all I really have to say to you today, is this. Let’s make a deal. If you give me my health and my life back, then we’ll forget about the last few years. All the great times you made me miss out on? Don’t even mention it. We’re cool. If you scuttle on out of my life forever, and let me start making some new memories, I’ll let you off the hook.

It’s OK to be an ostrich, sometimes

ostrich

Recently I’ve been having some problems with a friend. The issue was trivial, my reaction astronomical. It turns out that when you’re feeling fragile, no matter how aware you are of your colossal over-reaction to a situation, it’s really difficult to slow down the stress train.

I won’t go into microscopic detail but essentially I feel like one of my close friends isn’t being overwhelmingly sympathetic to my current poor health. Then when I dropped out of a music festival the two of us were going to this Saturday her reaction was less ‘I’m sorry you’re feeling shitty, how can I help?’ and more ‘Are you going to refund me for my ticket if I can’t find someone else to go with?’

I was upset, to put it mildly. Adrenaline coursed through my veins, there were some tears and I felt so stressed and hysterical I had to spend most of the next day in bed spooning a hot water bottle and watching crap TV. A ridiculous reaction to something that, although a little upsetting, wasn’t an impending apocalypse. For me, selfishness is one of the most abhorrent qualities a person can possess, but I’m also aware my friend has her own problems and she probably didn’t mean to act like a dick.

My mother had some words of wisdom to impart. “Sometimes, Claire, it’s OK to be an ostrich,” she said.

“An ostrich? What?”

Turns out she meant it in terms of burying your head in the sand. Stepping away from an issue, not even attempting to deal with it until a later date. Sometimes when you’re not strong, the wisest thing to do is walk away. I don’t feel like this situation has been resolved, there’s still a lot to say, many Britney Spears ‘Toxic’ lyrics to be quoted, but now isn’t the time for any of that. Now is the time to make like an ostrich.

So that’s what I’m going to do, and I feel pretty good about it. Who knows, I might even be able to save a friendship this way.

Coming out of the depression closet

public speaking

“You should be writing about your experiences in the Guardian or something. You know, show people it’s nothing to be ashamed of…” a friend said to me recently.

I nodded. “Yeah. Maybe in a few months. Think I’ll just do the anonymous blogging thing for now though.”

Putting your name to an illness like depression is brave, courageous and generally bloody awesome. It shouldn’t have to be, but thanks to prevailing bad attitudes and stigma towards mental health, it is. Considering the Victorians thought depression in women was down to the ‘wandering womb‘, we’ve certainly come a long way in terms of how society views the depressed and anxious. If only curing my affliction was as simple as shrieking ‘Wench! Back in your box!’ at my nomadic uterus.

Campaigns like Time to Change and the wealth of celebrities speaking out about their experience of mental illness are doing brilliant things to oil the wheels of change when it comes to stigma. But there’s still a lot of work to do.

It’s definitely important not to hide your illness in the shadows. Talking about it helps and self shame and stigma only serve to reinforce society’s misunderstanding of depression. I do believe that those who have experienced a walk with the black dog are the ones who can truly debunk and stamp out unhelpful depression myths.

But often while we’re fighting the good fight we forget about the people behind the illnesses. And that reluctance to go public with your problems isn’t always indicative of shame. Depression and anxiety are physiological conditions in the same way heart disease and broken bones are. But they’re more personal. 

People have very different ways of dealing with their emotions – some will reveal their problems to all friends, colleagues, bus drivers and woodlice within a ten mile radius, whereas others (me) are more private and need a bit of time and space to crawl out of the hole and heal first. Explaining what it’s like to go through depression to those that know you can be cathartic, and of course helps dispel mental health misconceptions, but it’s also exhausting.

Which is why the people that matter to me know what I’m going through, but everyone else is none the wiser. It’s why I’ll be writing about my experiences here, but I won’t be revealing my full name.

As long as I’m still in poor health and vulnerable, I plan on burying my head in the sand just a little bit longer. And I think that’s alright. Just as it’s OK to tell the world you have a mental illness, if you’re not ready it’s also OK not to.

Waiting room woes

GP stress

You really have to feel for GP receptionists. With sweeping healthcare cuts and a ballooning population, especially in London, they face more disgruntled patients than ever before. I should know, I’m one of them.

“Four weeks? I have to wait FOUR WEEKS for an appointment?!” I found myself hopelessly bleating across the desk of my local surgery recently. The tired looking receptionist held my gaze with a mixture of exasperation and sympathy.

“No that’s for your registration appointment. Then once you’re registered you can book a consultation with the doctor,” she explained.

I must have looked as broken as I felt, as she gently pushed a slip of paper across the desk. “But don’t worry, there’s a drop in centre down the road – you can go there and queue for an appointment if it’s urgent. Here’s a map.”

And queue I shall. Although I’m warned that there could be up to a four hour wait. I’m lucky as I have an extensive and amazing network of family and friends, many of whom have offered more than once to come to medical appointments and wait with me if I don’t want to go it alone. But what if you don’t have this kind of safety net? Some of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life have been the minutes and hours I’ve spent hanging around in GP waiting rooms, or at the hospital, while in the throes of depression. Fidgeting, sweating and in a general state of agitation. I don’t know if it’s the claustrophobic environment, being around other sick people or simply having to face up to medical woes, but I can’t stand these kind of appointments at the best of times, let alone when I’m mentally ill.

Today I scoped out the drop-in health centre, as a soldier might check out a possible route into battle. I figured out where it was, went in to have a look at the waiting room and asked what time I needed to get there to avoid queues and crowds. Because these are the lengths I go to to squeeze the potential stress out of anxiety inducing experiences.

All in all the outlook is good. The staff are friendly and it’s a pretty swish, shiny looking place, albeit dumped in the middle of a really grotty estate. Our health service is obviously doing something right, it seems the more deprived the area, the better the medical facilities are.

So tomorrow, 8am sharp I’ll be camped outside the clinic with my raincoat and portable stove. Once again, I’m turning to Auntie NHS for some more help and I really hope that instead of having pills thrown at me, we can find some sustainable solutions this time.

An open letter to clinical depression

cartoon_picture_of_girl_writing

I hate you. You’re a thief that’s taken so much from me. The moment you gave me my first panic attack life changed forever and a door opened which can never be shut.

I’m in awe of you. Your relentlessness, your power over me and your ability to instill fear within the most joyful, everyday things. How you ever made the innocent tinkle of an ice cream van bell strike fear into my soul on a balmy summer’s day is beyond me, but seriously, bravo.

I’m grateful for the things you’ve taught me. Self awareness, that being vulnerable is OK, and that all frightening things shrink when you face them head on.

You muted my capacity to love and replaced it with a cocktail of fear, nihilism and apathy. But it’s back stronger than ever now.

You’ve aged me. I’ve confronted things that otherwise may have taken a lifetime of experiences to unearth. I’ve looked my mortality in the face and I’ve come to terms with it. I’m not afraid of dying anymore. I am afraid of not living though.

By taking me to the end of my fear threshold, you showed me there’s nothing to be afraid of.

By forcing me to take time out and recuperate, you taught me to be kind to myself. And now I’m better at being kind to other people.

By showing me that I was living wrong, you forced me to make changes. Living under your crushing weight magnified everything that wasn’t right in my world, and forced me to think about what I could do to make it better. Without you I probably would have just muddled along as I was, accepting things as they were. Now I refuse to live anything but joyfully.

You made me difficult, in fact a complete toss-pot, to be around. But that’s OK because I love those that stood by me all the more for sticking around. You did make me hurt my family when they were trying to help me though, and for that, I still think you’re an ass face.

You’re awful and there have been times you’ve almost destroyed me. But you haven’t crushed my spirit, and you never will.

Once more into the breach

Cloud_of_Depression

After over four years of doing battle with depression and anxiety, punctuated with dizzying peaks and catastrophic troughs, I was just starting to feel like I was figuring it out. Back in stable employment, taking a few holidays here and there and even considering dating again, I couldn’t believe my luck. Could the black dog actually be retreating from my world once and for all?

Then spring arrived and with the change of season came a change in mood. For no apparent reason my hormones went beserk, hypomania and anxiety set in and now I find myself, once again, crushed by the weight of my failing nervous system and left cowering under a frightening black cloud. Feeling like there’s an axe wedged in my chest and that the sky is literally pressing down on my head. That creeping chill and a sense of impending doom wherever I turn. Dread. Feeling nervous before doing something as simple as doing the food shopping, or going to the dentist. I even find trees scary. TREES.

It’s disappointing, to say the least. But I’ve done it before and I shall endure it again.

I don’t think there’s anything more frustrating than feeling like your life is passing you by. Seeing all the possibilities before you, trying to grasp at the tendrils of something real but having it escape you. Depression truly is a cage. Your 20s should be a time for fun, frivolity and exploration but unfortunately for many it’s also a very confusing, high pressured and anxiety inducing stage of life. But it’s also a time for growth and if there’s one thing that grappling with mental illness gifts you with, it’s strength of mind as well as a space to grow as a person.

Little comfort to someone in the midst of a black fog, I know. But to anyone else experiencing the quarter-life-crisis, as I like to call it, I’d wager that it really is more common than you think…and if others can crawl their way to the other side, seeing in their 30s with a renewed sense of wellbeing and inner strength, then so can you. And so can I.