Spring fever and the black dog

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Spring. A time for new beginnings, growth, frolicking lambs and, for me, unexplained anxiety.

As the ice sheet of winter cracks open, flood waters recede and luminous tulips and daffodils push their way out of the sodden ground, I often feel like I’m teetering on the brink of temporary madness. Those first shafts of sunlight to penetrate the clouds and spread their warm, iridescent glow across the land fill me with excitement yet also an unnerving sense that my safety blanket has been yanked away.

The days begin to lengthen and I begin to feel ill at ease and incredibly unsettled. And I couldn’t tell you why.

I don’t know if it’s the sometimes dramatic turning of the season – murky winter days can transform into a colourful, floral panorama in the blink of an eye – or a biological reaction to altered sunlight levels, but change is in the air – and I don’t seem to like it.

Which is strange seeing as I’ve always adored spring and summer. I’m a sunshine child and love nothing more than being outdoors on a beautiful summer’s day. Whatever happens in my body at this time of year seems to be purely chemical, and totally contradicts how I should expect to feel as we leave the dreary English winter behind. I simply start to feel more exposed and even on the warmest of March or April days there seems to be a chill in the air. Then, as with all changes, I adjust and things return to normal. By early summer I generally feel fine again.

It’s a strange phenomenon and one that most of my friends can’t relate to. Spring inflates them with joy and excitement, and none of the anxiety I experience. However I have come across a couple of depression sufferers who admit to struggling more at this time of year, and my most severe experiences of panic attacks, general anxiety and depression have always, without fail, occurred during the spring months. This can’t be coincidence.

Spring is also marked by higher rates of suicide – but psychologists don’t seem to have the foggiest idea why.

The only documented condition I’ve come across that even vaguely mirrors my problem is that of Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder – or Summer SAD. We’ve all heard of the kind of SAD that has people hiding under the sofa during the colder, darker months but until recently I wasn’t aware that an estimated 600,000 Brits suffer from a summer version of this illness. Most of the UK population enthusiastically disrobes and heads for the nearest patch of sand/greenery/roundabout once the temperature rises above 15 degrees, so you can forgive the average person for being flabbergasted at the idea of sunnier climes sending anyone into a depressive tailspin.

But, as always, depression has no rhyme and reason – and a small percentage of sufferers evidently fall under the black dog’s spell during these warmer months.

However Summer SAD is said to start in early spring, and persist until the clocks go back in autumn time. Not so for me – luckily my anxiety generally quietens once I’ve adjusted to the changing season. Several sources also cite heat and humidity as anxiety and depression triggers for this condition, which definitely aren’t weather patterns I experience much in England – especially this early in the year.

So I’m still relatively clueless as to what exactly gets under my skin at this time of year. Being the somewhat sensitive flower that I am it may be prudent to just accept spring as a particularly stimulating and exciting point in the calendar – one which may prove a little too exciting for my anxiety threshold. After all, they don’t call it Spring Fever or March Madness for nothing.

There could be a very reasonable and logical explanation for my persistent springtime anxiety. But with the vast expanse of mental health research at our fingertips today, and still no discernible answers for me on the subject, I’m inclined to think it’s just a trick of the light, a chink in the stratosphere – yet another of the black dog’s great mysteries.

Playing with the big kids

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When you’ve been through a mental illness, the prospect of re-engaging with the world and becoming a fully fledged member of society once again can feel like being catapaulted into London’s Oxford Circus, on Christmas Eve, after living in a cave eating woodlice and talking to rocks for several years.

Fucking terrifying.

The challenges ahead are huge. For me, the thought of living on my own again, getting a job, dating and even navigating crowded trains and buses seems beyond petrifying. I frequently feel like there’s no way I’ll fully reintegrate into the bear pit that is our modern world without spontaneously combusting out of sheer terror. The important thing to remember is you physically can’t do it all at once, so don’t even try.

Especially when you’re dealing with an anxiety and fatigue problem, you have to start small and build your confidence gradually -otherwise you set yourself up for failure. If you broke your leg you wouldn’t try pole vaulting while knee-high in plaster cast – this shouldn’t be any different.

However, unlike physical injuries, mental illness isn’t always visible and easily measured. It’s a lot easier to accidentally run before you’re even meant to be walking.

I learned this the hard way when I attempted to get back into an exercise routine recently. Being in a swimming pool after months of anxiety-induced sloth felt fantastic. Too fantastic. I totally overdid it and suffered exhaustion, pain and terrible moods for about a week. My doctor suggested trying walking in the water, and only attempting three or four lengths next time. About ten metres into my next session as I wept – after realising I was paying almost £1 per length to stride purposefully through the water like a slightly disabled moorhen – an alarmed looking lifeguard geared up to leap into the water. I assured him I was fine, at which point the tears had given way to manic giggles over the whole mad situation, and he more than likely started trying to locate the leisure centre strait jacket.

Yes I looked like a bit of a knob, yes I felt painfully self conscious but that day I actually achieved what I’d set out to do, and my health didn’t suffer afterwards. Because my goal was reasonable and realistic, I was able to reach it and actually feel good about myself.

When I’ve achieved something small like catching a bus on my own, I find myself channelling the ‘I’m a big kid now’ child from that Huggies advert. The fact that enduring a few stops alone on public transport without melting in a steaming puddle of hysteria makes me feel so proud, seems ridiculous. But it’s not ridiculous, and that’s what anyone navigating the bumpy path back to normal life after depression will have to constantly remind themself. Each miniscule step is a movement towards conquering the black dog and saying hello to a less anxiety riddled existence.

Progress can be excruciatingly slow with depression recovery. It’s still progress, though – and that’s something I try to remember when I’m positively salivating with frustration over the fact I still can’t do certain things by myself. I’ve learned there’s no point in agonizing over how life isn’t what it once was; it’s far more fruitful to look at where you were six months ago and see how far you’ve come.

Once your stress addled brain registers a positive step forward – however tiny – recovery starts to get that little bit easier. And with a bit of good faith and hard work, I think any one of us can see that there’s life after mental illness.

How depression made me realise I’m going to die

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One day, hopefully many years from now, I’m going to snuff it, kick the bucket, pop my clogs, if you will…die.

This shouldn’t be a colossal revelation – after all we all know that our lives have expiry dates. We all know that our boarding pass on planet earth is temporary. Yet even with this glaringly obvious knowledge most people sleepwalk through their days without truly believing that their future has a finish line.

Death is something that happens to other people, an unfortunate feature of existence you needn’t concern yourself with until you come face-to-face with it. Why else do we waste so much time toiling away to earn money we don’t really need to buy things we don’t really want, waste precious time on petty quarrels, languish in toxic relationships or spend hours watching cats on the internet?

In the absence of anyone I’m particularly close to departing this world yet, I haven’t really had to confront death. In England we’re very stiff upper lip on the subject – it’s really only acceptable to use the D word when you’re either at a funeral or discussing the death of chivalry. My darling grandparents all passed away in their 90’s after long and fruitful lives – their deaths were sad but expected. A couple of health scares in the form of skin cancer and dengue fever certainly gave me a fright, but I was hardly tap dancing with the grim reaper. It was only when depression struck and catapaulted my mind into the dark that I really began to grapple with the only real certainty in life – it’s end.

Thanks to depression I am acutely aware of my own mortality. Having the spectre of death loom over your every waking moment makes it very difficult to ignore, even when you understand that your doomed and negative thinking patterns are merely a byproduct of warped brain chemistry. For some reason clinical depression makes you obsess about death, in fact persistent thoughts about your end of days are a hallmark symptom of the severe form of this cursed illness.

However, provided the cloud eventually lifts, it’s not the worst thing to be forced to face up to the facts of life. I had to come up with some pretty solid counter-arguments to my depression’s tiresome “I’m going to die so life is pointless” mantra. Wouldn’t it be awful if life went on forever? You need darkness to be able to see the light. What if the point in living was something as simple and awesome as ham and cheese toasties? Rainbows! Cats on the internet!

And thanks to my time living in the black dog’s shadow, I care less and less about the banal trivialities of life we all get caught up in from time to time. I really couldn’t give an aardvark’s gonad how many followers I have on Twitter, whether the bloke I fancy knows any famous musicians or if my job title makes me sound interesting. Part of this is due to simply growing up and shedding my self conscious skin but I also owe a large portion of my more nonchalant self to the blinding realisation that life is perilously short. When I’m circling the drain I’m really not going to give two shits about these things – I’ll care about whether or not I was happy and a decent human being. So that’s what I intend to focus on. Depression has gifted me with this life outlook.

Obviously this fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach to living can sometimes make planning for the future very difficult, and hopefully as I continue to progress towards good mental health my awareness of death will become a less dominant feature of my life. I just hope that the lessons I’ve learned will stick. In general – and I truly say this without having to throw up in my own mouth – I’m a better person now, and I don’t want that to change.

I wouldn’t wish depression on my worst enemy, but I’m glad that it hasn’t taken losing someone I love to realise that every moment is sacred. I know that this will happen at some point, hell I might even be the first to go, but until that day comes hopefully I’ll waste less time getting bogged down in unnecessary trivialities and just enjoy the moments. At the risk of getting deep as a puddle here – they’re really all we have.

When the friend ship sinks

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Poor health can shine a really harsh spotlight on relationships, and if you’re like me, you may not always like what you see.

Friendships are the tricky ones. For romantic partners, an illness is make or break time – your relationship will either get stronger or you’ll part ways. Family…well let’s face it, they have to put up with you, whether they want to or not. There’s nothing like sickness to make you appreciate your family. Friendships are more complicated – being in need certainly highlights who the good ones are, but with some people you may notice everything goes, sort of, quiet. It’s not like they’ve specifically done anything wrong, but they just become somewhat absent.

If your spouse took a step back when you were going through a tough time, you’d be forced to confront the issue and ask yourself some difficult questions about your relationship. With friendships you don’t always have the same element of responsibility towards each other, or as tightly entwined an emotional bond, so you can simply end up in a bit of a grey area when they temporarily disappear from your life, with a question mark hanging over your relationship.

Is doing nothing actually any better than doing something unhelpful? When you’re unwell and struggling in life, and your mates are aware of this, the silence you hear when they’re not checking in to see if you’re alright, is painfully magnified. I’ve had a few un-returned phone calls and texts lately and I suspect the emotional sting I’ve felt wouldn’t have been nearly as painful had I been on sturdier ground. Reaching out when you’re vulnerable is by no means easy – when the person you’re trying to connect with doesn’t offer a helping hand it just ends up compounding the pain and loneliness you might already have been feeling.

Is it the worst thing to be forced to recognise which friendships won’t stand the test of time? Should you really be investing your time in anyone who won’t be around when things become difficult? I wish I knew who penned the well-known quote ‘In life we never lose friends, we only learn who the true one are’. He or she sounds pretty darn wise.

I don’t think it ever stops hurting when people disappoint you – and unfortunately people are likely to let you down at various points throughout life, whether they mean to or not. The only thing you really need to ask yourself is whether a friendship is really one worth fighting for, or is it time to let go – without bitterness or anger – and move on.

One strange by-product of living with depression I’ve discovered is a new-found ability to let things go. I hate goodbyes. I can’t stand the thought of anything that used to be part of my life fading away into nothing. I literally have emotional problems switching mobile phone providers. Yet mental illness illuminated all that is transient, unfortunate and at times tragic in the world and gave me an acute awareness of mortality – in a funny way this seems to make it easier to accept sadness in my own life.

Suffering is part of being. People aren’t always what you need them to be. As I’ve meandered through depression it hasn’t just felt like I’ve lost part of myself, but that some of the people that once defined this previous self have faded into the background too.

When the shape of your very reality has irrevocably changed it’s always best to face the future surrounded by people you love, trust and can rely on no matter what. It’s just surprising how much it hurts when you realise that some of the very souls you pictured yourself growing old with won’t be a part of this group.

Hands off our children please, Mr Gove

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Michael Gove. What a man.  His latest vision for educational reform involves state schools becoming just like private schools – he wants nine or ten hour school days, entrance exams and to break down the ‘Berlin Wall’ between state and independent sectors. Far out.

I’m a (mostly) fully fledged adult and I don’t even work days that long. It seems like once again Mr Gove is modelling his educational utopia on the rigid, competitive and hierarchical structures of countries like Japan and South Korea. What he conveniently forgets is that these little pockets of academic toil also see some of the highest suicide rates on the planet. Coincidence? I think not.

The growing deluge of pressure on students and teachers alike in England really worries me. Mental health is already nosediving in this country – the number of young people aged 15-16 with depression nearly doubled between the 1980s and the 2000s. What chance do the next generation have if they continue to grow up learning that rigorous academic achievement and ‘success’ is the be all and end all in life?

Year after year learning for learning’s sake and any kind of focus on moulding the youth of today into confident, thoughtful, intelligent, happy and generally well rounded adults seems to fall back in favour of grinding through constant assessment, curriculum objectives and box ticking exercises. If teachers have to jump through any more hoops to reach our government’s ever soaring standards they’ll each deserve an Olympic medal in dressage.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with aiming high, but I fail to see how digitalising students’ worth through league tables and working them like Spartan slaves can be useful. It’s not going to teach the self worth, creativity and empathy we need in our future leaders. That should be obvious enough from the incumbent bunch of private-school-educated politicians currently trying to run the country.

I remember my favourite teacher well. My A Level English Literature class drifted by in a blissful haze of earnest and insightful discussion on everything from Orwelian dystopia to whether Philip Larkin was a cat or dog person. Mr Robson wasn’t overly concerned with meeting strictly defined objectives, nor was he any kind of disciplinarian. But he instilled a love for reading in each of us and we got the work done. I don’t know that I would have gone on to study literature at degree level or forge a career in journalism had this man not reintroduced me to the joy of books for the sake of pleasure, not just academia.

I can only hope that teenagers today are still lucky enough to have teachers that can rise above educational bureaucracy and inject this level of enjoyment into their lessons. Happier, less stressed, more stable people are more productive people. They also tend to have more empathy, less self-focus and many other qualities that better position them to positively influence those around them and make the world a better place. I can’t see how working children ten hours a day and putting them through even more tests and exams will make them anything less than miserable.

If I were education minister, teaching about mental health would be as important as sex education in schools. Depression 101 would eclipse home economics. Then again Boris Johnson is about as likely to announce a new career in dubstep as I am to go into politics. For now, my only hope is that the education fairy pays Mr Gove a visit in his sleep and somehow manages to convince him to release his vice-like grip on the wellbeing of England’s youth.