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.