On the dangers of wading into the murky waters of philosophy, my dear old Dad once quipped: “Aristotle spent all day pondering life, death and the universe but I bet he didn’t let any of it put him off his tea.”
He was of course right, but I was in the throes of severe depression at the time and couldn’t even cope with the basic tenets of existence. Try talking to me about the infinite nature of the cosmos and you would have had the misfortune of witnessing my brain cave in on itself.
I did a joint degree in English literature and Philosophy and spent many an hour debating the deep questions of the universe with my fellow students and teachers. Why were we here? What happens when we die? How can we know we’re not just dreaming? If a tree falls in the forest and the only one to hear it is a lonely stoat, did it really happen? It was scintillating, wonderful and generally a weird experience but that’s why we all loved it so much. After all as the man Socrates said himself, a life unexamined isn’t one worth living, and if we’d examined our space in the world any harder we might have rubbed it out entirely.
So it’s safe to say I was comfortable navigating the Big Questions. Until severe depression arrived at my door a couple of years ago. The sheer vastness of the universe terrified me, I simply couldn’t handle the fact that one day everyone I loved would perish and my fear of the unknown threatened to consume me. I can vividly recall a conversation with my brother about the possibility that nothing was real and we were all living in the matrix. It suffices to say his response that it would be ‘awesome because we’d get to wear capes and jump about like Keanu Reeves’ didn’t lift my spirits. I then went on to ask what would happen if I went blind, then deaf, then somehow lost my arms and legs…and he slapped me upside my head. And I deserved it.
Because that’s what depression does – it makes you project all sorts of potential terrible situations and fixate on them until you’re so far gone you’re scared of a bowl of porridge. Rational thought leaves the building. I remember being terrified every time the phone rang because I assumed someone had died. The telephone handset, to me, was a doomed harbinger of all kinds of awful news. I had absolutely no reason to feel like this, it was just my warped, poorly brain telling me to fear the worst in everything around me.
I can happily chat about philosophy now. Of course there are still things that frighten me, I’m vulnerable as every other human being on the planet is vulnerable. Life can be difficult. But my less depressed brain is much better placed to cope with what the world throws at me, and I’m aware that when things get tough I’ll probably have at least most of my arms and legs to help me get through it.
Sitting at home, so wracked with boredom you could chew your own arm off in despair. You’ve watched eight episodes straight of The Wire so gazing moronically at the TV isn’t an option, unless you’d like your eyeballs to dissolve in their sockets. Too exhausted to go out, yet too twitchy to nap or read a book, you pace restlessly around the living room, waiting for the sweet anaesthesia of sleep to release you from another excruciatingly dull day.
Is this familiar?
Depression and anxiety can disable you to the point that you physically can’t get out into the world. Staying active is a key part of getting better, but there are times when you’re so debilitated you can’t work or socialise so you end up alone for vast expanses of time. Despite the naively peddled misconception that depression sufferers are lucky to have so much free time to pursue their interests, being confined to your home is no fun.
When you’re barely functioning as a human being it’s hard to use all that spare time to, I don’t know, write a novel, take up tai chi or learn to play the nose flute. Sometimes just finding a way to pass the hours in a way that requires little concentration (you have none) and helps you to survive another day, is hard.
Depression makes it so difficult to focus. While trying to immerse yourself in an activity it’s easy to get distracted – whether from outside noise, intrusive thoughts or your own foot. When I’m walking the tightrope between being intolerably bored, agitated and having the attention span of a gnat, there are very few things that will keep me occupied and quell my urge to climb the walls like a tree frog.
But, I have learned a few tricks along the way to both promote relaxation and get myself doing something that doesn’t involve crouching in the corner of a room, rocking and singing to a pillow. Here are a few little things you can do to keep cabin fever at bay for those times when you really have no option but to stay at home:
Cook. I find that cooking demands just the right amount of attention to detail to keep your mind off how crummy you feel, but it’s not in the least bit stressful. In fact I generally feel very chilled out when I’m banging pots and pans around in the kitchen. Plus it’s a means of passing the time that culminates in one of my favourite activities. Eating. You don’t need to be Nigella to benefit from the calming effects of whipping up a culinary delight either – if your piece de resistance is beans on toast, that’s fine.
Get a friend round. If you’re lucky enough to have supportive friends, don’t be afraid to reach out to them. You might be surprised how happily someone that cares about you will come over to watch a film, chat or just pat your head while you bang it against a nearby wall.
Stay out of bed. This one’s so important. No matter how much you feel like just going to bed because there’s nothing else to do, get your butt out from under that duvet. You’ll just mess up your sleep pattern and make yourself feel worse. Be sure to maintain a strict 8-hour sleep policy and only go to bed when you’re truly tired enough to slip off into the land of nod.
Clean. The tidiness of my home is a very accurate barometer for my anxiety levels. When I’m stressed and house-bound I take to the bleach and marigolds like Anthea Turner on speed. Not only is it a great outlet for all that pesky adrenaline, but you end up with a living space to rival an Ikea show home.
Go outside. Instead of getting into a routine of just being trapped between walls, make sure you check out the great outdoors once in a while, where the air is fresh and there are TREES and everything.
Yoga. Nothing like a bit of gentle stretching and deep breathing to get some oxygen circulating and calm a frazzled nervous system. You don’t need to start meditating in a cave or anything but this kind of gentle exercise is perfect for anyone looking for a little peace.
Write. This one’s very much rooted in personal bias, but writing about how you feel can be very cathartic. Even if it’s just a few sentences a day, or an angry stick man diagram, putting what’s in your head down on paper can be a very satisfying way to while away some time.
Music. Playing or listening to music is super relaxing. Unless it’s death metal, obviously. If you’re a grade eight trombonist, great, but if not even just switching on the radio or browsing spotify is a fast track to feeling mellow.
If you have any other useful ideas for getting through enforced cabin fever, please let me know!
Recently I’ve been having some problems with a friend. The issue was trivial, my reaction astronomical. It turns out that when you’re feeling fragile, no matter how aware you are of your colossal over-reaction to a situation, it’s really difficult to slow down the stress train.
I won’t go into microscopic detail but essentially I feel like one of my close friends isn’t being overwhelmingly sympathetic to my current poor health. Then when I dropped out of a music festival the two of us were going to this Saturday her reaction was less ‘I’m sorry you’re feeling shitty, how can I help?’ and more ‘Are you going to refund me for my ticket if I can’t find someone else to go with?’
I was upset, to put it mildly. Adrenaline coursed through my veins, there were some tears and I felt so stressed and hysterical I had to spend most of the next day in bed spooning a hot water bottle and watching crap TV. A ridiculous reaction to something that, although a little upsetting, wasn’t an impending apocalypse. For me, selfishness is one of the most abhorrent qualities a person can possess, but I’m also aware my friend has her own problems and she probably didn’t mean to act like a dick.
My mother had some words of wisdom to impart. “Sometimes, Claire, it’s OK to be an ostrich,” she said.
“An ostrich? What?”
Turns out she meant it in terms of burying your head in the sand. Stepping away from an issue, not even attempting to deal with it until a later date. Sometimes when you’re not strong, the wisest thing to do is walk away. I don’t feel like this situation has been resolved, there’s still a lot to say, many Britney Spears ‘Toxic’ lyrics to be quoted, but now isn’t the time for any of that. Now is the time to make like an ostrich.
So that’s what I’m going to do, and I feel pretty good about it. Who knows, I might even be able to save a friendship this way.