The Poo Taboo – Forget Auld Lang Syne, We Need to Talk About Toileting

Ah Yuletide. A time for chomping your way through mountains of leftover turkey, consuming your body mass in mince pies and washing it all down with a gallon of prosecco. Delicious rich foods: huzzah! Boozey cakes and ALL the biscuits: woo! Stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhea and acid reflux: yay! No, wait…

This New Year’s Eve most people’s minds are solely on fireworks, parties and who they’re smooching at midnight. Not me. I want to talk about shit.

One morning last year I had a bowel movement so perfect I wanted to frame it. The size, shape, consistency, colour…my God it was perfect. A textbook, exhibition-worthy poop. Why was I so excited? Because I had suffered from severe IBS for months and my inability to consistently and fully empty my bowels was severely lowering my quality of life. Those who fulfil the NHS-recommended one-to-three bowel evacuations each day without giving it so much as a second thought will never know how truly blessed and lucky they are. I thought about poo constantly. I literally dreamed about shit. Previous life goals had included penning an erotic novel, mastering the nose flute or adopting an ardvaark. Now I was just shooting for ‘normal digestion’.

Forty-eight hours prior to this magnificent dump I’d had my first ever colonic hydrotherapy treatment, delivered by a lovely Indian lady who, when I questioned her on how she had got into this line of work, shrugged and didn’t really have a clear answer. Because in India colonics and enemas are part and parcel of everyday life. She grew up learning that her digestive system was the centre for everything. Got a headache? Clear your bowels. Back pain? Cleanse the poop chute. Acne? You can probably see where this is going…

One of the central tenets of Ayrevuda – the ancient healing system present in India for over 5,000 years – is that a healthy gut is key for longevity, vitality and mental well-being. Western medicine is starting to recognise the significance of digestive health in the treatment of chronic illness and mood disorders, but there’s a long way to go. Happy pills and talking therapy are still very much the mainstays of modern mental health treatment, despite mounting evidence linking gut dysfunction with ailments like anxiety and depression.

Talking is great. I’m a big fan of verbal discourse. If depression, anxiety or chronic fatigue are rooted in bottled up feelings and repressed trauma then of course they’re not going anywhere until the tsunami of confusing and difficult thoughts confounding your grey matter are confronted. Therapy can be insightful and life changing. But what if the primary cause for your strife lies within your gut microbiome? Studies suggest that an imbalance in gut bacteria could be playing an active role in inducing psychiatric disorders – try chatting your way out of that problem.

In this country we don’t talk about our digestion openly. Did you know there’s actually a World Toilet Day? Me neither (November 19 if you’re interested). Pay a visit to the doctor with tummy troubles and you’re likely to simply leave with a prescription. Or well-meaning advice that it’s ‘all in your head’ which, actually, might not be wildly far from the truth as around 90% of the feel-good chemical serotonin is made in the digestive tract. There’s just no denying the brain-gut connection.

So how about this new year instead of signing up for gym memberships that won’t get used, buying vegetable juicers that will lie dormant in the back of a cupboard or writing ANY kind of list, we simply resolve to talk toileting more. Let’s bring bowel movements out into the open (not literally, y’all have a porcelain throne for a reason) and get a dump dialogue going.

The gut is often referred to as our second brain. I think it may actually be my first – sorting out my digestive health has been something of a magic bullet for improving fatigue and mood difficulties. These days I’m certain that a truly holistic approach to good health and mental wellbeing is impossible without considering gut function, and if I have just one hope for 2018 it’s for society at large to stop being prudish about poop and get on board with talking about their rear ends more.

Yep, shit’s getting real – let’s  break the poo taboo.

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Hooked on Happy Pills

‘Well I’m happy for you to stay on them…’ My GP peered thoughtfully at me over the rim of his glasses. ‘I’m also perfectly fine with you coming off them. I’ll set our review for a year’s time shall I?’

And thus passed the annual antidepressant prescription review, like so many of its predecessors, proving about as useful as a chocolate teapot – and that although it’s so very easy to start taking happy pills, getting off them is another story.

Happy pills. antidepressants, SSRI’s – whatever you call them – used to be the preserve of those teetering on the edge of psychosis. These days everyone’s on them. There’s no doubting that some people in the throes of serious clinical depression really need support from medication – and drugs like paroxetine, citalopram and zoloft provide a chemical lifeline to those nosediving into a serotonin-deprived abyss. However there seems to be a worrying trend towards over-prescription. Medication being handed out like smarties for the mildest cases of the blues – and patients consigning themselves to years of pill popping.

The NHS prescribed record numbers of antidepressants in the UK last year and a recent study by women’s campaign group Platform 51 found that nearly half of those using antidepressants have taken them for at least five years, while a quarter have used them for ten years or more. The statistics are frightening, but actually being part of these numbers scares me even more. I’m eight years and counting.

I have been on and off antidepressants three times now. Having never been able to tolerate more than the lowest possible dose of my particular brand of synaptic rocket fuel, I still have absolutely no idea if they help me at all. Literally none. However the emphatic explaining away of my anxiety, depression and fatigue symptoms with ‘serotonin deficiency’ has consistently led me back to a GP-endorsed SSRI prescription.

I do know that the first two weeks of cranium electrics, nausea, sandpaper mouth and night sweats feel like a grenade has been dropped into my soul. And that once these side effects have tapered off it’s impossible to benchmark what effect the antidepressants are really having. I’m just thankful to have survived. I’m told the ‘therapeutic benefits’ of my medication can be expected to kick in after six weeks or so – but at this point I’ve usually been working so hard at getting better through exercise, meditation, healthy diet and general avoidance of stress that any number of things could be bringing me back to wellness. Drugs have always been just one aspect of a very holistic treatment plan for me and I’ve never been sure of the part they’ve really played in my wider recovery story.

My uncertainty has always sat in stark contrast to the certainty with which medical professionals have recommended drug therapy to me. All roads lead back to chemical imbalance, it seems. That knowing nod in the GP room when it’s discovered that depression reared it’s ugly head again a year after ditching my medication, the inferred conclusion that being drug free was the chip in the metaphorical mental health windscreen that led to a whole world of shattered glass. Serotonin, you see. And my counter-argument that we’re all still utterly clueless around whether or not the pills actually help me? ‘Well they really can’t hurt…’

Except for some people it seems they can. Hurt, that is. Particularly for those on high dosage antidepressants, withdrawal can be vicious. Dizzy spells, migraines, aches and pains, insomnia. If you’ve watched Leo Di Caprio sweating and whimpering his way through heroine withdrawal in The Basketball Diaries think of SSRI comedown as a vanilla version. Pretty, it is not. Six months easily turns into six years on these pills when kicking the habit is this hard. Then there’s psychological dependency. Even if you’re not chemically hooked, mustering up the confidence to throw out the blister-pack-shaped safety net is terrifying.

At this stage I have no idea what to do and neither, it seems, does my doctor. It’s definitely the easier option to keep mindlessly slipping a small blue pill under my tongue after breakfast everyday. But time’s marching on and with it the ever decreasing likelihood of a chemically unaltered future. Do I really want to remain a slave to lab-manufactured serotonin? Can I put up with the tedium and inconvenience of monthly trips to the pharmacy coupled with the expense of prescription charges? It’s a sensitive subject – a decision worthy of careful, contemplative thought with due consideration for what support might be needed further down the road – and it’s going to take more than ‘come back and see me in a year’ to get there.

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.

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 total strangers, they’d have got a smack in the nose. I would have felt a likelier candidate for space travel – that I was being taunted with a delicious, but unrealistic, dream.

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. It’s a constant work in progress and I felt ridiculous for allowing arrogance to shake my commitment to staying well.

But despite this realisation I know that I’m in a good place now and that I’m lucky to inhabit the life that I have. Many live with much, much worse. Joy finds me on a far more regular basis than gloom these days – and that will do just fine for me.

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? (* types away at blog and tries to ignore glaring irony *) 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 slice 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’.

Lads and lexapro – men get depressed too

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Recently I was out on a hen do, when after a few cocktails and loosened tongues, talk turned to mental illness – and it transpired that half the women I was with were taking antidepressants. Literally 50 per cent of the group. 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 starting this 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, for sure.

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 dangerous and like watching years of toil against mental illness stigma dissolve 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. 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? Who can say. 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 still manage to be responsible human beings generally kicking arse at life. 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.

Christmas marketing and the hysteria illusion

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“Why do they call it ‘Christmas time’, when ‘time’ is the one thing you don’t have at Christmas?” sighs the Curry’s voice-over man on the radio. Before we have a chance to ponder whether this is true, he’s moved on to their cut-price deals with the enthusiasm of a caffeinated grotto elf.

It’s December, and if mass media is to be believed there’s an unspeakable force of evil in town – jolly ol’ Saint Nick.

We all know that things can get a little stressful at this time of year, what with all the panic sock purchases, the inexplicable need to photocopy your bum at the office party and limited time to eat your body mass in mince pies. The last thing we need is a constant reminder of just how tense we should be feeling. Except, unfortunately, the big brands have long since figured out a way to make cut prices and next-day-delivery all the more appealing in their festive advertising campaigns – by pretending Christmas is the worst thing to happen since the Holocaust.

‘Oh isn’t Christmas horrible,’ we chortle, as our chapped, bleeding hands get to work on wrapping present number 73,’ but thank goodness all these random brands are here to whip up some festive hysteria and get us to spend loads of money on things we didn’t know we needed!’

I recall Morrisons doing a particularly spectacular job of aligning Christmas Day with Dante’s seventh circle of hell a couple of years ago. ‘Here it begins. It’s everywhere. There’s so much to do…’ whispered a possibly clinically depressed Mum, who morosely trudges through her Christmas ‘to do’ list with all the festive enthusiasm of a dead kipper. She battles the shops, practically has a nervous breakdown while peeling the spuds and eventually proclaims: ‘It’s hard work, but it’s Christmas and I wouldn’t have it any other way.’ Did we believe her? Was it not actually Morrisons that ‘wouldn’t have it any other way’ otherwise who would be bulk buying their cranberry sauce on Christmas Eve?

If you’re battling mental illness the holiday season can be tricky enough to deal with, without the big corporates trying to make you feel even more overwhelmed. So I try not to let myself within a cubic centimetre of the TV at this time of year, even if the John Lewis ad really does embody the ‘magic of Christmas’ and will make you cry snowflakes.

If you weren’t already feeling a little strained, fear not – crimbo advertising will have you hyperventilating into a paper bag before the year is out. Next are touting their next-day-delivery as the eighth wonder of the world, Ocado promises to ‘take the stress out of Christmas’ and Aldi warns you to stock-pile novelty napkins at once with their creepy ‘once they’re gone they’re gone’ mantra. Forget Yuletide joy – if the marketing Gods are to be believed it’s all about burned out shoppers beating each other out of the way with Advocaat bottles before flinging themselves off Rochester Bridge in despair. Tis the season, indeed.

Is Christmas really so terrible? Of course not, we’re being duped. It’s not about buying everything in sight until your home resembles an Ikea catalogue page. It’s about quality time with loved ones, going to stare at the twinkling, luminous Oxford Street lights, making mulled wine at home, badly, hanging up tacky, fluorescent paper chains and mopping up the dog’s puke when you forget to hang the Christmas tree chocolates above snout height.

This Christmas, instead of battling fellow shoppers for the last cut-price pigs in blankets, I’ll be tuning out the avalanche of bile taking over the TV and radio waves and actually enjoying myself. Spending time with people I care about, exchanging sloppily wrapped gifts and not having a hernia because someone forgot to buy the Pringles. It may not be as ‘perfect’ as the Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference advert, but I’ll bet it will be traditional.

My anxiety disorder makes me look like a shoe bomber

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Cognitive behavioural therapy is making me look like a complete fruit loop, not to mention costing me a bloody fortune. The sessions themselves are totally gratis thanks to Auntie NHS – but it’s the ‘homework’ I have to carry out in-between sessions to challenge my anxious thoughts and behaviours that’s burning a hole in my wallet and causing me to behave like an amnesiac nomad.

A few weeks ago I paid six pounds to travel to Reading by train, only to cross over to the other side of the platform and ride back home. The next day I travelled to Reading again, had a cup of tea (£1.90) in the station cafe before again heading straight home (another £6). To the untrained eye I must have looked like a) a lost goat  b) a terrorist or c) someone who just really, really likes train journeys.

I’ve paid £2.20 to go and sit on a tube platform at Paddington Underground station and simply watch Bakerloo line train carriages rumble past, before heading back above ground without making any journey whatsoever. To the confused security staff watching me on CCTV – I’M SORRY.

Why does any (sort of) sane person do these things?

I’ll tell you. Part of cognitive behavioural therapy involves plotting graded activity hierarchies around an area that causes you considerable anxiety, and gradually exposing yourself to these anxiety-inducing situations until your frazzled nervous system realises they’re not so terrifying after all.

It’s the psychology world’s answer to ‘learning by doing’ and the wonderful thing about graded hierarchies is that they allow you to take things at the pace of a disabled snail. Thanks to previous bad experiences when I was severely depressed, and having been unwell for a long time, I’m pant-wettingly afraid of navigating public transport solo – but in order to conquer this fear there’s no need to immediately fling yourself onto a train to Aberdeen. The first step of my graded hierarchy was to ride my local bus just three stops on my own, and the last step was to travel into London on the train and get on the underground by myself. There were many, many steps in-between and I never moved onto the next level until I felt truly ready.

Don’t get me wrong, forcing yourself to do something that frightens you over and over again is horrible and exhausting, but it works. After having many panic attacks on public transport in the past, my body had learned that being out and about by myself in crowds was a Bad Thing. The inevitable racing heart, sweating, shaking and dry mouth that appeared every single time I tried something new and mildly exciting would not dissipate no matter how many times I told myself that simply catching a seven-minute local train was nothing to get jelly-legs over. I learned that by staying with my anxiety and discomfort on these journeys until it shrank to a more manageable level, I could reprogramme my frightened brain. Forcing myself back into those situations and re-writing my experience of them compelled my nerves to admit defeat and accept it was safe for me to get back on tubes, trains and buses by myself again.

Anyone that’s going through CBT exposure therapy will know that the slow and necessary steps you must take to rebuild confidence and get back out in society following mental illness are some of the hardest, most gruelling strides you can ever make. And it often feels like an utterly thankless task. When a friend asks you what you did today and you proudly reply: ‘I went to Sainsbury’s, forced myself to stay in there for five minutes, stared at some kiwis and went home, weeping,’ you will be all too aware just how far depression or anxiety made you fall.

But you will be proud, and each minor victory will spur you on to your next challenge, and you’ll know that one day things will be back to normal. But you’ll never take being able to catch the bus alone for granted again, and before jumping to suspicious conclusions about that lone stranger loitering for far too long on the train station platform, you’ll wonder if, maybe, instead of planning a devastating terrorist attack, they’re just working through an anxiety disorder.