Depression, flight 9525 and the media – stigma sticks


“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 a fantastic way to try and wipe out years of toil against mental illness stigma, 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 (I strongly believe this figure could be much higher – stigma makes many hide their illness). 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? I know more about nuclear fission than I do this subject. 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 currently hold down all kinds of positions of responsibility. 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.


Plate smashing and murder at the swimming pool – dealing with anger

angry face

“Bugger off I’m MEDITATING!” I yell, in a tone not dissimilar to a grizzly bear, as my teeth grind in frustration and  steam begins to gently hiss from my ears. Whoever had just hesitantly tapped on my bedroom door retreats quietly in fear, and it’s at this point I realise that perhaps, just maybe, my quest for inner zen isn’t working as well as I’d hoped.

Everyone battles with nasty feelings of anger and frustration every now and then – it’s part of life. Traffic jams, messy inconsiderate flatmates, unanswered text messages, Boris Johnson – we all have our trigger points. But if you’re dealing with depression, anxiety or plain old chronic fatigue (or all three) the chances are that anger plays a much larger role in your daily life than is healthy, and if it’s not managed, it can cause a lot of problems.

At the height of my worst ever tangle with the black dog, I recall one day seriously debating whether or not I should leave the house and go for a swim at the local pool, because I felt like I was ‘dangerous’. That’s how angry I felt. I was genuinely worried that my simmering, impotent rage was a hazard to civilised society – that I might end up losing control and doing some damage. I might thump the receptionist if she looked at me the wrong way, or push a pensioner over in the jacuzzi. What if someone tried to use my float while I was off perfecting my butterfly? I couldn’t be responsible for my actions with a pull buoy in my hand.

I was being ridiculous, of course. While I was unwell I was no more dangerous to any member of the public than a grumpy cat is to a rhinoceros – but the anger and irritability that come with depression and exhaustion can make you numb to all that’s good and light, it can convince you that you hate everything and everyone, and it can make you doubt yourself in ways you never thought possible. It also has the capacity to turn you into a grade A bitch.

The people I love the most – a dear friend, a brother, my Mum – sometimes unwittingly become vessels into which I unload toxic irritation, frustration, anger and angst. Using your nearest and dearest as multiple punching bags is not cool, I’m well aware. But sometimes every innocent word that tumbles out of their mouth becomes irritating and rage inducing, through no fault of their own – ‘What are you up to today?’ may as well be ‘I broke into your house and painted the walls with cat shit’. You want to deck them for simply having the audacity to start a friendly conversation with you.

At times like this I know I’m being cruel and unloving, but unlocking the part of myself that knows how to reach out and be affectionate, kind and contrite feels like an impossible task. ‘Say you’re sorry! Tell them you really don’t mean to be such a heartless bitch…tell them you LOVE them and you’re only acting this way because you’re hurting,’ is what my heart shrieks desperately to my brain, but I must have some loose wiring somewhere because I never seem able to spit these words out in the heat of the moment.

When anger strikes, avoiding behaving like a petulant child and alienating everyone that cares about you can be so damn hard. But if you’re looking for ways not to end up a social pariah, you can always remember that however hard life is for you right now, it’s pretty crap for your friends and family too – and not just because you’re being about as friendly as an iceberg. It’s truly terrible seeing someone you care about in pain, especially when you don’t know how to help them, or feel like they won’t let you try. I know that all my parents especially have ever wanted is to see me happy, and when I lash out in anger and misery I don’t just hurt myself – I hurt them too. Knowing this is good motivation to hold my tongue when I’m feeling crabby.

And there are always plates. I’ve always said there’s an untapped market for plate smashing therapy rooms at Ikea – you’d be amazed at the simple, glorious joy to be found in buying a £3 bargain box of plates only to go somewhere private and smash the hell out of each and every one of them.

Ultimately, though, all the anger management in the world won’t stop the occasional slip-up. The unnecessary snide comment, the over-reactive retort or the cruel put-down…all because your anger has nowhere else to go.

Which is why I’m going to take a few deep breaths and chase after whoever it was that unintentionally interrupted my peace and incurred my wrath. Because they probably only came knocking to see how I am. Because it’s not their fault I’m in a stinking mood. Because even though I don’t particularly feel like being nice, I don’t particularly feel like closing the door on my loved ones either. One day they might just stop knocking.

Antidepressants – why yours is the only vote that counts


My last GP appointment went something like this:


Me: ‘So…you asked me to come in for a review. To be honest I’m not really sure if the antidepressants do anything positive for me. There’s really no way of knowing… I’m pretty aware of all the side effects though.’

GP: ‘How do you feel?’

Me: ‘OK I guess. Pretty tired but getting on with things. I get stomach trouble, hypoglycemia and a lot of weirdness going on with my vision though…’

GP: ‘Those seem like reasonable side effects,’

Me: Awkward silence.

GP: ‘I think stay on them’. *writes prescription* ‘I’ve set your next review for January…’
January 2016.


Yep, just keep taking the pills and come back IN A YEAR.

It was at this point that I finally, truly realised, once and for all, that when it comes to making decisions about happy pills I really am on my own. My various doctors have always been very happy to dish out SSRI prescriptions for me, but I’ve generally been met with a wall of silence when it comes to proffering an opinion on whether or not they may be doing any good.

I get it. Coming off medication always presents risks – one of which being the patient slipping back into poor mental health and ending up at the bottom of a river. An extremely unlikely scenario for sure, but still one which must weigh heavily on the conscience of any medical professional dealing with those sick with depression. I can see why it’s easier to just keep writing prescriptions – and perhaps that’s why antidepressant use is sky-rocketing in this country.

In England more than 50 million prescriptions for antidepressants were issued in 2013 – in Blackpool the problem deepens with a staggering one adult in every six snapping up a prescription for these pills each month. They’re everywhere. If you don’t know at least one person within your social circle that takes some form of antidepressant medication regularly, I’d be very surprised.

When you’ve fallen down a mental illness hole you’re desperate. You need solid advice, guidance, empathy and compassion. These are things I’ve always been lucky enough to receive from doctors when I’ve been depressed or anxious. In desperate, vulnerable times I have clung to the medical profession as an anchor of hope, and it’s got me through.

But what about that slippery, grey area that emerges a bit further down the road – when you’re well into recovery mode and you need to make some decisions about how to sensibly move forward with your health? When you begin to feel whole again, should you keep on popping the pills or try to wean yourself off and go it alone?

You’d think that determining whether something you put in your body every day actually makes you feel better or not would be a relatively simple task. Somehow, it’s really not.

Ultimately you’re the only one that can figure it all out. Doctors, friends, family, lovers and pet aardvarks can all offer their opinions but no-one can actually climb inside your brain and ascertain what you really need. The only person that can decide if you’re strong enough to make some changes to your treatment plan, might benefit from a break from chemical intervention or can’t put up with unwanted side effects any longer, is you.

Some will caution against cutting back on antidepressants too soon – that you’ll erase all the good work they’ve done and could fall back down the hole. It’s a reasonable worry to have. But there are arguments against staying on these types of medications long-term too – such as psychological dependence and harm to your baby during pregnancy. They’ve even been linked to type 2 diabetes.

There’s a lot of conflicting information at our fingertips when it comes to antidepressants and not a lot of help to make sense of it. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut – and that’s not just a pun on the delightful array of gastrological symptoms that can arise from SSRI use.

I will stress (here comes the disclaimer, kids) that you should NEVER stop taking antidepressants without consulting your doctor, and if you do decide you want to come off them you need to do it gradually. Stopping these sorts of pills cold turkey is dangerous, not to mention all kinds of unpleasant. Withdrawal is not something you want to mess with, believe me.

We’re all special, different, unique little creatures – and we all respond differently to things like antidepressants. For some they can be literally lifesavers – life enhancing wonder-drugs that beat the black dog back from their door. For others like me it call all be a bit, well, ‘meh’.

That’s not to say that just because I can’t seem to see palpable changes to my health, that the drugs don’t work. I’ve been on a gradual upwards gradient over the last year and perhaps antidepressant use has played a role in that. For now I’m not planning any drastic changes – but I don’t plan to stop asking these sort of questions any time soon either.

Giving ‘Blue Monday’ the finger



It’s that time of year again. December’s festive bickering over the last Quality Street and Auntie Marge’s gin-fuelled racist rants at Christmas lunch have passed through the January-depression-memory-adjuster, leaving only fuzzy memories of family bliss and jolly games of Scrabble around the log fire. You’re reminded that it’s January, you haven’t kept any of your New Year’s resolutions, you’re broke and the mince-pie thighs are still expanding. You now resemble a walrus.

Or so the media, detox-diet advertisers and the creators of today’s ‘Blue Monday’ love to tell us every bloody year. No, I’m not talking about New Order’s awesome 80’s anthem. PUT THE GLOW STICKS DOWN. Alas the infuriating phenomenon I refer to uses some sort of nonsensical equation incorporating variables such as ‘weather’, ‘motivation’ and the ‘post Christmas slump’ to pinpoint the most depressing day of the year as the third Monday in January.

Get ready to crawl under the nearest duvet/sofa/fridge, dear readers, for that apex of doom is in fact today. It’s allegedly the most popular day of the year for divorce proceedings to begin, a time to start worrying about Valentine’s Day and supposedly a day we can expect an avalanche of woeful and grumpy tweets to fill the internet.

I say ‘supposedly’ because, what’s that, Buzz…?




Fine, it’s January. Yes, it’s a tad chilly. Christmas is over. I still haven’t saved up enough money to buy a second hand Volvo, nor have I written my first novel, married a Persian Prince or come up with a cure for Alien Hand Syndrome. I’m feeling quite chipper though. Not having mulled wine foisted upon me at every opportunity is actually quite nice, in fact I was more than happy to see the back end of Christmas and purge my house of tinsel. I never bother with New Year’s resolutions. Spring is coming. As far as Mondays go, this one feels anything but blue – in fact as the afternoon sun laughs through my window it’s positively glowing orange.

I wonder if instead of telling us when we should be feeling grim, the media might stop talking about fictional depression days conjured up by useless equations, and spend their time actually highlighting the real issues surrounding mental illness? Just a thought.

To conclude, if you’re still in any doubt as to whether today really is the most depressing day of the year, I leave you with Grumpy Cat. What do you think, GC?



Well alright then.

January tinted glasses

Calvin and Hobbes

Humans are a predictable bunch, especially at this time of year. After the alcohol-drenched din of festive season revelry has dwindled and eventually died, those of us fortunate enough to have spent the last couple of weeks overindulging with loved ones are generally doing one of three things. De-toxing, wallowing in a pit of January depression or searching for The One.

For many the new year is a time to wipe the proverbial slate clean, boot the previous year into oblivion and seek the kind of change that promises to make us deliriously, over the top, Jessica-Simpson-on-fruit-pastilles, happy. And this change comes in the form of The One – something we desperately seek as a quick fix for all our current problems and a guarantee for future bliss.

The One comes in many varied incarnations but being as simple as we are, there seem to be three main things we tend to place at the epicentre of our potential for happiness – relationships, where we live and what we do for a living.

Take relationships. Statistics dictate that the period between Christmas and New Year is the busiest time of year for online dating sites; with around 350 per cent more traffic expected post Crimbo. With one in five relationships now starting online it’s not surprising that the masses are flocking to their laptops, ipads and smart phones to cure their loneliness – reports typically seeing a 25 to 30 percent increase in new members registrations between Boxing Day and Valentine’s Day.

If we’re not looking for Mr or Mrs Right to top up our happy meter, we might be turning our attention to our careers. If you’re looking to ensure joyful living through snapping up an exciting and meaningful new job, then now is a good time to iron the interview trousers and practice your most sincere ‘my biggest weakness really is my workaholism’ face.

In fact if you’re really smart you’ll have got ahead of the game and already started looking. Employers are increasingly mindful of the January recruitment rush and, according to a recent Monster report, December is becoming a much more active month for HR departments advertising job vacancies. In fact applications are tending to slow down more than openings do during the holiday season – tipping the balance in favour of those mentally strong enough to put down the mulled wine and work on their CV.

Finally, it’s common to be looking for The One in the form of a dream living location at this time of year. In my corner of Berkshire the luminous, multi-layered colours and textures of autumn have given way to an all-consuming and oppressive greyness and a damp chill that even seven gallons of Earl Grey can’t rectify. If you’re not fantasising about migrating to some far flung spot in the southern hemisphere where your days comprise trips to a sun drenched beach to be served mojitos by an Argentine model named Diego, then there’s something wrong with you.

It’s not a coincidence that mid January is the most popular time of year for lucky gap year students to leave the country and skip off to warmer climes. Mid-winter in this country is undeniably shite. But for those of us that actually need to work for a living and have family attachments here, running off into sunny oblivion just isn’t realistic. However for some people, simply moving within their own country is enough to shake life up a little. If you really are suffering from new year dissatisfaction and want to get on the property ladder, apparently January is the best time to make an offer on a house.

While the above are all valid mechanisms for improving quality of life, there’s also a strong chance that anyone hell bent on dramatically changing one of these three things right now is suffering from gin and mince pie overload and a bout of rash and idealistic daydreaming. Unless you’ve been seriously thinking about finding love, moving jobs or relocating for some time, you might find that in a few weeks – after your liver and digestive tract have a chance to splutter back into life- you don’t feel so anxious to upend your life.

Searching for The One can also be a symptom of ‘I’m Not Happy Because…’ disease – a terrible affliction which causes us to blame a variety of external causes for our flagging wellbeing and self esteem. Anything but ourselves.

How to Win Friends and Influence People author Dale Carnegie once said: “It isn’t what you have, or who you are, or where you are, or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about.” And from one wise author dude to a slightly less wise custard cream lover, I would have to agree.  It’s very easy to look to others to solve our problems, when maybe we simply need to look at things from a new perspective. That being said, if you’ve given serious, well thought through consideration to making major change in your life – go forth and conquer. I salute you.

Christmas marketing and the hysteria illusion

Bad Santa

“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 chipper as a grotto elf and explaining how the electrical shop plans to make buying their wares ‘stress free’ this party season.

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 literally gets in the boxing ring with the turkey, 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? I put it to you, readers, that it was 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.

Waging war against the winter blues


All my friends seem to be on holiday at the moment. Thailand, Bali, the Caribbean, Spain…they’ve rejected England’s soggy, grey autumnal landscape for sunnier climes, and I don’t blame them. However the most exotic trip I’ve made recently is to my local Tesco Metro, so I’m a tad jealous.

It doesn’t help that we’re speeding into that point in the calendar that spurs even the most sensible Brits to make like a hedgehog, hunker down under a pile of blankets with large supplies of tea, hobnobs and five seasons of Breaking Bad, not to emerge until March. Today the outside world is cold, dark, wet and generally hostile. That alone is enough to inspire most people to dive under the duvet – if you suffer from anxiety or depression it’s yet another reason to seek refuge and withdraw from real life.

If there’s anything I’ve learned during my long walk with the black dog, it’s that when it comes to the instructions anxiety and depression send you – ‘you can’t do that’, ‘retreat’, ‘stay at home’ – a good rule of thumb is to do the complete opposite. If your frazzled nervous system tells you to cower in the corner because it’s miserable outside, then it’s ruling you. If we let anxiety and negative thoughts dictate our actions then we’re just opening the door to further isolation, depression and fear – and mental illness is winning. However if we can muster the strength to turn anxiety on it’s head and expose ourself to life outside in deepest, darkest winter, even though we’d rather hibernate, we might realise it’s not so awful.

Want to stay in on Friday night, become one with the sofa and watch re-runs of Friends until your eyes bleed? Get up and go to that party you’ve been invited to. Talk to strangers even though it’s scary, connect with other human beings, laugh, dance and you might just enjoy yourself and sleep deeply and contentedly when you get home, as opposed to the fitful, broken rest you probably would have got if you’d spent the night as a couch potato.

Feel like eating your body mass in macaroni cheese, chased down with chocolate fudge brownies? Have some broccoli. Go for a run. I guarantee looking after your body reaps massive rewards when it comes to mental health. It’s not easy to pick fruit and veg over takeaway at this time of year, but stodgy comfort food just makes you more lethargic and unmotivated in the long run.

Too afraid to go on a date with that hottie you met at the Christmas party, because depression tells you you’ve got the sex appeal of a mountain goat? Fake it. Go out anyway, pretend you’re the sexiest piece of ass since Megan Fox/Brad Pitt/Spongebob Squarepants, even if you don’t believe it. Flirt, allow yourself to be complimented, pretend you’re desirable even though depression tells you you’re not worth it, and who knows, you might just start to feel better about yourself for real.

It also helps to remember the great things about this time of year that those living the beach dream in hot, sunny climates never get to experience. Lovely winter coats! Hot chocolate! Warm knickers fresh off the radiator! I could go on.

So instead of crumbling in the face of the coming months of sofa-worthy weather, let’s stay active, keep having fun and give the winter blues the finger. Screw Thailand, it’s all about Slough, Bolton and Wraysbury in late November – who needs palm trees when you have sticky-floored pubs, tramps and Argos? Who’s with me? Guys?

My anxiety disorder makes me look like a shoe bomber


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. If any security guards were watching my little escapades on CCTV I can only apologise for the extra frown lines I’ve caused from the confusion contorting their faces while they try to figure out what this nervous looking female is doing. Scoping out the platform for future, sinister, terrorist activity? A bit of tubespotting? Or maybe she just doesn’t know where/who she is?

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.


Getting back on the underground horse


I spied her lurking in the newspaper-littered corner of Paddington Station; sneering, shining, defiant. Beckoning me to her shadowy depths. I paused, taking a moment to look up from my steaming tea mug and catch the full brunt of her steely glare. “So…” I mused. “We meet again.”

My nemesis? The London Underground. All I needed was a leather swivel chair, a cat to stroke malevolently, and my London transport face-off would have been Bond-worthy.

You see it’s been more than a year and a half since I set foot in the London underground system – and I have something of a chequered past with these subterranean trains. Multiple panic attacks have happened in-between Oxford Circus and Baker Street. The central line may as well be my own personal synonym for ‘hyperventilation’. Descending the steps at Mile End Station literally feels like my lungs are slowly filling with water. In short? I’m not a fan of the tube.

Over the last five years, every time a bout of depression/anxiety crept into my life the first thing to feel it’s toxic by-products was my ability to make underground journeys across London. Being trapped beneath the city’s streets in overcrowded, pungent and creaking carriages that rattle through darkened tunnels at break-neck speed can be somewhat stressful for those in good health. To someone suffering mental health difficulties, it becomes unbearable. The tube is actually a very successful barometer of where I’m at in my battle with the black dog – if I can manage a 40-minute stint in the bowels of the underground then you can bet I’m pretty in control of my adrenaline levels.

I don’t intend on moving back to London. Sure I want to visit every now and then, but I can always get a friend to accompany me underground, or just take the bus instead. So why such a burning desire to conquer my nemesis? They say suffering makes you more resilient and determined; I think that’s just psychologist talk for ‘pain in the arse’. I’m far too stubborn to let my fear of the tube defeat me, even though I could probably find ways to avoid going underground in the future. Depression robs people of so many things, not to mention entire chunks of their life, but I’ll be damned if it alters the way that I choose to travel across my nation’s capital city. I’ll be getting back on the horse, even though my horse resembles a rickety underground train.

Today I had no intention of actually making a tube journey. I was just checking in, saying hello to an old friend. Contemplating the idea of someday soon perhaps taking a very short jaunt along the Circle line. But the fact that I feel ready to even start thinking about getting back on the, er, horse marks a pretty significant stage of my recovery. And for now, that’s enough for even someone as stubborn as me.

Should we talk about suicide as ‘freedom’?

robin williams

Yep, that’s right, I used the S word. I want to talk about that most scandalous of taboos, the one only discussed in hushed voices in darkened corners in the wake of tragedy – that of taking one’s own life. Wilfully and deliberately choosing to take an early exit from earthly existence in favour of whatever might be waiting after the human body expires, as beloved actor Robin Williams so sadly did on Sunday.

As fans began to mourn the loss of one of the comedy world’s brightest lights, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tweeted a well-known image of Disney’s Aladdin wrapped in an embrace with Williams’ hilariously voiced Genie, alongside a simple message: ‘Genie, you’re free.’

The emotional farewell hug, the starry-sky backdrop, the sense of hope and liberation – it seemed a poignant and fitting tribute, on the surface at least. But the viral tweet – while well intentioned, shared by over 300,000 people and viewed by countless others – has suicide prevention experts worried, and rightly so. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has warned that the image violates well-established public health standards for how we talk about suicide. They’re concerned that romanticising Williams’ death risks contagion of vulnerable children and adults – meaning the phenomenon of ‘copy-cat suicide’ where media coverage of one death can end up encouraging others already contemplating suicide to take that final leap.

The written implication that Williams’ death meant freedom from his suffering paints suicide in far too celebratory a light, said Christine Moutier, chief medical officer for the foundation. And let’s face it, anyone that’s dealing with persistent suicidal thoughts, who may already have made plans to terminate their own life, really doesn’t need much of a trigger to put these plans into action. I don’t believe that the Jumanji star’s untimely demise will have people lining up to throw themselves off bridges, but glorifying his release from a turbulent life as ‘freedom’ is certainly unhelpful – especially considering his status as a well loved and highly respected celebrity.

Rather than any intentional insensitivity or ignorance on the part of those that initiated this social media storm, what this highlights more than anything is the thorny, delicate and somewhat confusing nature of the public discourse we have when it comes to suicide. For those facing terminal illness, rapid degeneration of mind and body, chronic pain and relentless misery, ending life may actually represent freedom and liberation. I’m pro choice when it comes to suicide and the right to make a dignified exit from a life that, for whatever reason, is sliding into an intolerable abyss that really isn’t going to improve. But depression doesn’t have to be a life sentence – even though it seems that way when you’re in the throes of a bad episode – and that’s why we need to be so careful when considering those at their wits end. Suicide may seem like the only viable option when the black dog bites, but many people facing severe depression and thoughts of harming themselves can and will go on to make a full recovery. This is the optimistic and hopeful message we need to be spreading when it comes to mental illness.

We need to focus on the life and works of a fantastically talented and ferociously hard-working creative, whose bright light was extinguished far too soon, rather than romanticising his death as anything other than incredibly sad and tragic. Thanks for the laughter, Robin, and may you rest in peace.