The morning after the night that wasn’t

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Living with poor mental health often, to me, feels like sloughing through the day with a raging hangover.

The relentless march of stress always seems to leave me with the pounding headache, sawdust mouth and brain fog that you’d associate with a night spent knocking back gallons of beer and umpteen tequila shots, washed down with a questionable kebab and a wobbly night bus journey home. Except I’ve been living on green tea and spinach and lentil curry and going to bed at 10.

Depression doesn’t just affect your mind, it wrecks your body too, even when you’re living like a saint. At least with vodka you can get away with showing a burger vendor your pants and confessing your undying love to a lamp post.

With this in mind, I give you quite possibly the best literary account of a hangover to ever grace the pages of a book. Ladies and gents; Kingsley Amis and Lucky Jim:

“Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth has been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by a secret police. He felt bad.”

If there’s a better description of a hangover floating around in the stratosphere, then I will sail down Regent’s Canal in a saucepan, and eat my shoe. Try me.

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Surviving cabin fever

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Sitting at home, so wracked with boredom you could chew your own arm off in despair. You’ve watched eight episodes straight of The Wire so gazing moronically at the TV isn’t an option, unless you’d like your eyeballs to dissolve in their sockets. Too exhausted to go out, yet too twitchy to nap or read a book, you pace restlessly around the living room, waiting for the sweet anaesthesia of sleep to release you from another excruciatingly dull day.

Is this familiar?

Depression and anxiety can disable you to the point that you physically can’t get out into the world. Staying active is a key part of getting better, but there are times when you’re so debilitated you can’t work or socialise so you end up alone for vast expanses of time. Despite the naively peddled misconception that depression sufferers are lucky to have so much free time to pursue their interests, being confined to your home is no fun.

When you’re barely functioning as a human being it’s hard to use all that spare time to, I don’t know, write a novel, take up tai chi or learn to play the nose flute. Sometimes just finding a way to pass the hours in a way that requires little concentration (you have none) and helps you to survive another day, is hard.

Depression makes it so difficult to focus. While trying to immerse yourself in an activity it’s easy to get distracted – whether from outside noise, intrusive thoughts or your own foot. When I’m walking the tightrope between being intolerably bored, agitated and having the attention span of a gnat, there are very few things that will keep me occupied and quell my urge to climb the walls like a tree frog.

But, I have learned a few tricks along the way to both promote relaxation and get myself doing something that doesn’t involve crouching in the corner of a room, rocking and singing to a pillow. Here are a few little things you can do to keep cabin fever at bay for those times when you really have no option but to stay at home:

  • Cook. I find that cooking demands just the right amount of attention to detail to keep your mind off how crummy you feel, but it’s not in the least bit stressful. In fact I generally feel very chilled out when I’m banging pots and pans around in the kitchen. Plus it’s a means of passing the time that culminates in one of my favourite activities. Eating. You don’t need to be Nigella to benefit from the calming effects of whipping up a culinary delight either – if your piece de resistance is beans on toast, that’s fine.
  • Get a friend round. If you’re lucky enough to have supportive friends, don’t be afraid to reach out to them. You might be surprised how happily someone that cares about you will come over to watch a film, chat or just pat your head while you bang it against a nearby wall.
  • Stay out of bed. This one’s so important. No matter how much you feel like just going to bed because there’s nothing else to do, get your butt out from under that duvet. You’ll just mess up your sleep pattern and make yourself feel worse. Be sure to maintain a strict 8-hour sleep policy and only go to bed when you’re truly tired enough to slip off into the land of nod.
  • Clean.  The tidiness of my home is a very accurate barometer for my anxiety levels. When I’m stressed and house-bound I take to the bleach and marigolds like Anthea Turner on speed. Not only is it a great outlet for all that pesky adrenaline, but you end up with a living space to rival an Ikea show home.
  • Go outside. Instead of getting into a routine of just being trapped between walls, make sure you check out the great outdoors once in a while, where the air is fresh and there are TREES and everything.
  • Yoga. Nothing like a bit of gentle stretching and deep breathing to get some oxygen circulating and calm a frazzled nervous system. You don’t need to start meditating in a cave or anything but this kind of gentle exercise is perfect for anyone looking for a little peace.
  • Write. This one’s very much rooted in personal bias, but writing about how you feel can be very cathartic. Even if it’s just a few sentences a day, or an angry stick man diagram, putting what’s in your head down on paper can be a very satisfying way to while away some time.
  • Music. Playing or listening to music is super relaxing. Unless it’s death metal, obviously. If you’re a grade eight trombonist, great, but if not even just switching on the radio or browsing spotify is a fast track to feeling mellow.

If you have any other useful ideas for getting through enforced cabin fever, please let me know!

My depression demolition team

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Depression can be very isolating. Soaring stress levels can severely impede what you can do on a daily basis and trying to keep up with social niceties is exhausting, then there’s the reclusive nature of the illness. Why go out and meet people when you can completely withdraw and spend the evening at home weeping in front of an endless conveyor belt of Mad Men episodes?

Depressed people are no picnic to be around and there have been times I certainly wouldn’t hang out with me.

Because of this the pool of people I spend time with has slowly but steadily shrunk over the last few years, leaving a very select few friends and family members splashing about in the shallows with me. Since I stopped being ‘fun’, my wider circle of acquaintances has drifted away to the point that these days the most intimate window into their lives I have is through Facebook.

It’s not the worst thing in the world to be forcibly reminded who your real friends are. I’ve got some pretty good ones. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss my carefree and frivolous partying days – having a big network of mates can be ridiculously fun. But they’re not the ones who will sit on the phone with you at 3am when you can’t sleep, or take you to the doctors when you’re too anxious to go alone.

So I thought I’d take the opportunity to spotlight a few of the people in my life that are helping me through this relentlessly awful time, and some of the incredible things they’ve done for me over recent years. My loved ones have become a fearsome force of destruction when it comes to battling my depression; picking me up every time I fall and refusing to let me to give up. Without them I doubt I’d still be standing today.

First there’s my parents. Pushing 60 and not without their own troubles, they’ve been my rock throughout this ordeal. They’ve taken me in and looked after me when I couldn’t cope by myself and put up with numerous tantrums when frustration made me lash out at those I love the most. I know they’d do anything for me, that this journey has been horrific on them too, and they’re my main motivation for getting better.

D, my best mate from school, although having no way of conceiving what depression is like – being the most joyful, positive and energetic person I’ve ever met – has never stopped trying to understand what I’m going through. She’s made it very clear that there’s no time limit after which she’ll cease putting up with my hysterics, and is the first to correct me when I question why she’d still want to spend time with someone who has become so tired and boring. I’d be lost without her.

W, my best mate from University, is a flaming ball of positive energy. When I’m about to fall down the well, she rugby tackles me back into reality and forces me to think positive. She once travelled all the way from London to my parents’ home to drag me back to the city on a train because she knew I couldn’t do it alone.

My brother M. He seems to have stolen all the wisdom genes in our family, for there’s no-one else who can shift me from completely panicked to calm, in the space of a phone call, like he can. He takes no prisoners in his approach to dealing with my illness and knows exactly when to call me out on my crap, but I trust him implicitly.

Lastly, there’s my friend A, a qualified psychologist who I know, at times, has found it difficult not to overstep the boundary between friend and therapist, but time and again has provided much needed advice and support with infinite grace and compassion. Despite having to spend most of her day dealing with other people’s problems, she always has time for me.

When I start to feel jealous of my 20-something peers whose colossal social spheres seem to involve nothing but having the time of their lives (damn you, Facebook, DAMN YOU) I only have to think about my little pocket of loved ones. I only need to remind myself how truly privileged I am to have these people in my life, and to hope that one day I can show them the same unfailing loyalty, love and respect they’ve shown me.

And then I remind myself to switch off Facebook.

Are you sitting comfortably?

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I remember my first smear test. I skipped into the nurse’s room without a care in the world and was greeted with a somewhat matronly, steely stare.

‘The important thing to remember with this procedure is you have to relax. You have to relax or it will hurt,’ she said with an inflection not dissimilar to a schoolteacher giving you a good telling off.

Confused, and now about as relaxed as a clam, I clambered onto the couch, then it was legs akimbo and off we went. Unpleasant, yes, but it wasn’t impossible and I went on with my day.

Three years later and I was due for another check-up. Obviously having a complete stranger poking around in your nether regions is no trip to the zoo, but I’d done it before without fuss so this time round shouldn’t be any different, right?

Wrong.

I woke up this morning with a cold sense of dread that squirmed in the pit of my stomach and raised the hairs on the back of my neck. I felt upset and dizzy before I’d even reached the GP surgery. I felt the rational part of my brain making a desperate bid to surface, trying to remind me that there was nothing to worry about here and that I needed to relax.

Unfortunately, this was the crux of the problem for me. Telling someone with clinical depression to ‘just relax’ is about as clever as brewing Tetleys in a chocolate teapot. You get nowhere. The procedure was extremely painful, we had to stop before a sample could be taken and I was in floods of tears by the end of the whole sorry experience.

I felt ridiculous that I couldn’t even go through with such a simple procedure. Smear tests are generally not a big deal, at least they haven’t been for me in the past, and as a woman they’re an essential component of my general health MOT. And yet if it’s not bad enough to have been through such an ordeal, my depression even had the cheek to make me feel guilty about it afterwards. Arsehole.

I feel ashamed and pathetic not to have been able to withstand a little discomfort and pain. On top of that I feel bad for wasting the nurse’s time – this one was actually very sweet and friendly and, unlike her predecessor, didn’t make me feel as if I was about to voyage into Mordor. But I’m also aware that’s just the depression talking.

And talk it will. For if I’d been a little kinder to myself I might have realised that this kind of invasive procedure would be tricky for anyone feeling as anxious and vulnerable as I do at the moment, and that it might have been better to wait. And that today doesn’t constitute a ‘failure’.

It’s very difficult for anyone suffering from depression not to beat themselves up when these sort of things happen. Falling short of your own expectations of what’s ‘normal’ and what you ‘should’ be capable of can feel horrendous. You can re-hash the day’s events/failures over and over, picturing how you should have behaved.

Or you can try to forget about it, and eat some chips. Today, this is what I’m choosing to do.

Freshly pressed and freshly frantic

Freakout

One of the numerous oddities of depression is its ability to make me freak out over the tiniest of things. A delayed train, unseasonably hot weather, an unexpected ring of the doorbell. A tree.

Just when I’m feeling vaguely calm and like my mind and body might even get a little rest, something usually happens to rock the mood boat and hurl me back into the icy waters of hysteria. Even positive things can be cause for a minor meltdown, because when you’re this fragile, any kind of excitement – good or bad – can be wholly overwhelming. Depression’s a tenacious little bastard.

Which is why although I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email stating that my little blog had been selected to be ‘Freshly Pressed’, I also lost the ability to take in oxygen, blink and use my legs for a good ten minutes. I panicked.

For those that don’t know, the ‘Freshly Pressed’ section of the WordPress site comprises a selection of blogs hand picked by the WP editors-at-large, to highlight their favourite posts of the day. It’s a fantastic accolade and certainly not one I had expected to come my way. It also involves a huge flock of new readers stumbling onto your page, which I think is what threw me the most.

‘HOLY JUMPING BADGERS. People are actually going to read this?!’ squealed my brain.

I began this blog as a means for emotional catharsis, a way to reach out to other depression sufferers, but also because I had a large amount of time on my hands. It was this or alphabetising my socks. I vaguely recall thinking that if just one person found my nonsensical ramblings useful, then I would have achieved something great. I didn’t really think anyone would read it.

A few hundred emails later my expectations have been well and truly smashed. And although that initially made me feel incredibly vulnerable and like I’d tumbled into one of those dreams where you end up naked in front of a football field full of jeering Welsh men (no, just me?), I’m smiling now. So an absolutely huge, warm welcome to all my lovely new subscribers and thank-you so much for all your feedback and stories. *waves*

Having had a chance to calm down and trawl through all the wonderful and supportive comments I’ve had, I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to reach a wider audience with my experiences of what it’s really like to live with a mental illness. In a society where our perception of depression is often skewed and completely off base, I’m chuffed to bits to be able to play a part in stamping out stigma  – and if I had to endure a little bit of hysteria to get there, then so be it.

Photographic memories

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Anyone with clinical depression who has been told to ‘think positive’ and ‘remember the good times’ will know the creepy, forced smile you offer the purveyor of said well meaning sentiments. Because trying to explain to anyone that actually has access to the happy part of their brain that you don’t really want to be miserable, you’ve just lost the ability to feel good, is like being repeatedly slapped in the face with a trout.

Depression is a negativity dump truck, unloading its toxic cargo of sad thoughts, self doubt and unpleasant memories into your cranium every hour of the day. The reason sufferers can’t just focus on happy thoughts is that, temporarily, they don’t exist. All that was once joyful and light has been squirrelled away deep in the annals of your consciousness, to be uncovered once depression’s done playing it’s sick and twisted game. Sometimes it’s impossible to comprehend that happiness was once physically possible.

Enter photography. Photos are genuine, bona fide happiness EVIDENCE. Even when you can’t remember what it’s like to feel joy, you can certainly look at an old photo that captures a moment of happiness and know that it really happened. Is that me grinning like a deranged meerkat as I jumped out of a plane in New Zealand? Yes. Am I actually laughing in that surfing shot? Looking calm and relaxed on holiday with my family? Yes and yes. It happened. Was I on mind bending drugs or under the spell of a magical unicorn? Nope, just enjoying myself.

If the only memories I had were what’s locked inside my head, I’d be in trouble right now. But these glossy, dog-eared snapshots represent a time when I knew what it was like to be happy, and they’re playing a critical role in keeping me hopeful at the moment. The camera doesn’t lie.

So when I’m feeling hopeless, my mind is clouded with ‘I can’ts’ and ‘you’ll nevers’ and I’m convinced the depressed version of me is the only person I’ll ever be, I leaf through some old photos to remind myself of who I was before the big D. A girl who travelled, socialised, danced, laughed, lived and who had fear but jumped anyway. And I tell myself that if I was her once, then I can be her again.

Doctor doctor

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Having been snuffling around in the pigsty of poor mental health for several years now, I’m learning to be more demanding when it comes to getting help.

A recent trip to the doctor’s more resembled a perilous voyage into Mordor than an innocent check up – I was battle-ready and prepared not to leave with just a pill prescription, but rather a more concrete and sustainable plan to wobble my way back to better mental health. Fight the power.

Except that ten minutes after shaking the doctor’s hand, I had a psychotherapy referral underway, a blood test booked and a sincere request from my GP to please come back if I felt in any way overwhelmed over the next few days. It all went so well I didn’t really know what to do with myself.

It’s not my intention to badmouth the NHS, but my experience of GPs is that they’re perpetually reluctant to make referrals to see a specialist unless you’re so far gone that your brain’s seeping out your ears like a soft, steaming mass of spaghetti. ‘Come back in six weeks’ and ‘I’m certain we can sort this out here’ are all too familiar platitudes to me. Not to mention that bloody depression questionnaire they make you fill out. Sometimes, I’ve felt like doctors are clueless when it comes to mental health.

Which is why my recent experience was so refreshing, and also why it’s so great that the campaign against mental illness stigma, Time to Change, has implemented a new project to make GPs more mental health friendly. Since October last year project workers have been leading one-to-one sessions with frontline health staff, to help them better understand mental health service users’ experiences. The results have been positive with 64% of GPs saying they were better equipped to make adjustments so that people with mental health difficulties could access their practice, as opposed to just 41% before the project began.

In times of ill health your doctor is the lifeboat you cling to and the way they react to those that reach out for help with depression and anxiety, can be life changing. So if this project has made even a shred of progress in doctors surgeries nationwide, for some people that could literally mean the difference between life and death.