Category Archives: Adventures in Depression

Still time to talk

Last Thursday marked ‘Time to Talk’ day. For some time beforehand I had told myself that it would be a good day to blog again to get people up to speed with my own health.

Then, because of my own health, I was not up to it on the day. Yep.

And, because of my own health, it has taken a disproportionate length of time to get this done at all. Ah, yep.

You may not be bothered about reading about mental health, or interested in why I behave the way I do these days. Please don’t feel any obligation to read on. I am not fishing for sympathy or even trying to make excuses. I would like to put down my thoughts on this blog, however; it is a difficult subject to bring up and worthy of some attention. Mental ill health is an invisible condition.

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Since I got very ill in 2013, I have learned that I fail if I rush. I fail if I push myself too far. I fail if I get in a cycle of negative thoughts, eating habits or lack of discipline. I succeed only if I carefully pace life, keeping at things, finding the positives, respecting myself and living by faith, so it is still worth putting this blog post up even on the wrong day. Especially on the wrong day.

Every day can be a wrong day when you battle with the non-newtonian fluid that is time with a cloudy mind. I have no idea what day it is normally; it isn’t so important if you can’t juggle more than one thing well. To counter this I have lists and routines to ensure children are fed, dressed and delivered to and collected from school or clubs. Not knowing the day is like a mist that many of us experience when we’re busy. This state however is what my own mind is like most of the time. A dense fog. It’s out there, but I don’t know where to look – when I cannot see where I am going, I go to autopilot for many tasks. I cannot see where I have been either, as my memory is very patchy.

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I make an effort to make myself remember things, but you may see me struggle to recall something from last week, last year or childhood, which may then suddenly come back into my head days later with real clarity.

That can be frustrating, unless I see it for what it is and allow myself longer to remember things; I only hope I’m not called up in court to tell ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’ when what is available to me is ‘the whole truth as I perceive it today, although there may be more I cannot yet access’. When I’m on a roll with an activity or in the zone mentally on a specific project I can sometimes stay focussed for far longer than usual, but as soon as I stop, that’s it. Gone. At other times I struggle to concentrate on a TV programme or a film or a book I’m reading. I don’t know why this is.

So when I do push myself too far, what does ‘failure’ mean? When my mind clouds or my memory or plans don’t make sense, that is. It is a sense of being lost, but it is also a lack of being able to function or be present in the moment. It is as if large parts of my mind are frozen. I can see tasks all around me but not only can I not arrange which order to do them in, but I cannot see how to do any given one. I have to reduce my focus intentionally and heavily against the flow of my wandering mind to one specific activity, and then hope and pray nothing comes along to throw me off. As I have a naturally divergent mind this can be quite draining mentally. If I am low emotionally it just costs too many spoons to achieve much in a day.

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My daily spoon allowance is probably around 20 going by the chart here (which is not entirely accurate for me, but gives a general idea). My limits are nothing like as serious as dealing with the effects of ME, fybromyalgia or any of many other invisible illnesses, but it is real. If I give you my time, I will honestly think it is worthwhile doing so. If I don’t, it may well be down to self-preservation.

As an introvert, I love people, but I just don’t always love being around them. Being with people saps my mental resources very quickly. When I am very ill I cannot be around even my immediate family until I’ve recharged (currently this happens at least twice a day), and being in groups pays a very heavy toll; I need to make time to be alone on my own terms for several hours if I have had to be around a large group or in a space where I could not get away from people. This limits going into town, social events, sports, potential work situations and affects the rate at which I can do voluntary activities.

I get anxious internally, panicky and confused. Really confused. I may mess about or be facetious just to manage to remain in a place with others. Or I might hold one of my children close so that I don’t need to take responsibility for anything I can’t focus on. I forget things and my mind needs stimulus without saturation – so I find my foot tapping or my fingers moving about. I start to believe that I am not capable or that my slow pace of progress on tasks will mean I cannot achieve good things without a lot of support. The idea of making a phone call fills me with dread; even answering one can take a spoon or two from that day. I remind myself that I used to be a high-achiever and try not to blame myself for the slow going I find in my life today. I am writing a book. Even aside from the regular discipline needed for writing, I am having to be kind to myself when other things crowd in and use up the resources I have on any given day. Perhaps this will change in time, but until then I have to be content with baby steps and finding purpose and affirmation instead in the trivial and mundane activities I do at home or the exciting and useful things I do at church or out and about.

When I burned out nearly four years ago I was able to access counselling which was wonderful for talking over areas of my life that had caused hurt and working through some irrational thinking patterns. This has helped enormously. However, despite the counselling, and despite loving friends and family, an understanding doctor and appropriate medication (I tried to live without it for a year and am now back on it), I have realised that my mental health may be something which colours a huge amount of what I do. Where I was once highly attentive, I am frequently now oblivious. Where I was able to focus, I find I get overly tense and exhausted easily. I open many tabs in my mind (and on my computer) so that I can feel some sense of accomplishment, but do not finish all the tasks and forget what I am trying to do when I have to go off and collect the children or cook or see to the pets. As a result I start lots of ideas and struggle to maintain them.

I survive on cups of tea, on kind words, on prayer, on the promise of a book to come, on incremental improvements, on medication and on each of life’s many joys.

In the fog, joyful events and sad moments can each come as surprises. But I can also lose the sad moments more quickly as they get forgotten, and enjoy what is good by focusing hard on them and planning good things which will come around and surprise me.

The experience is like walking by trust with little sight, unaware of quite how the next chapter is going to unfold. It is not an experience I would have chosen, or would want to remain in any longer than I need to, but it is familiar now and I can work with it.

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(photo by Ian Furst)

 

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Doing Something

Maybe like me you have come across many articles and posts about depression and anxiety and wondered why those affected seem to need to write about it so much. Disproportionately, almost. I was giving this some thought.

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Some of us need to write to make sense of things in our heads, and feel better if we can share with others who affirm us. Some of us are lonely and want to connect with the outside world. Some of us feel that as depression and anxiety are fairly invisible, that the internet is a safe way of raising the topic and that Doing Something is helpful, even if it means someone else who is suffering learns that they are not alone and that there is Hope Somewhere. For some, it is a way of explaining behaviours we are not proud of: isolating, self-absorbing behaviours or irritability and moodiness. We are not happy with living like this and want to give some reasons for it. We crave unconditional affection regardless of where we are, knowing that that is part of the key to healing. We don’t mind accountability if it means moving out of the darkness. The little black puppy nipping at our heels for the past few months has grown into a beast which controls us, and we just want someone to help us put it on a lead, walk it with us through the journey ahead and learn how to live despite it.

And as I was thinking about how isolating it can be to feel depressed, which is a place I have found myself in again recently, I realised how similar the experiences of lonely older people can be. I was in the shop in the village with the children this week, chatting about jam or bread or something trivial, and one of them got in the way of an elderly lady. This is a typical event for our family, and as usual I apologised to the lady, but I made a point of making eye contact, though that doesn’t come easily to me. I recognised her isolation and felt a connection, so I smiled. She smiled back and commented on our jam (or bread, or whatever we were talking about) and we exchanged a couple of sentences. For me, they were two or three of the hundreds of lines of dialogue I had had that day. For her, perhaps they were far more significant.

When I see someone on their own in the shop, especially an older person, I am not going to get upset with the children for getting in their way. Instead, I can use the opportunity to smile and perhaps talk with them briefly, lessening their isolation to a degree and showing the children how to tackle loneliness. Because being depressed doesn’t make you less sensitive to others’ needs; if anything I find I am far more sensitive and concerned. It means I need time sometimes to absorb, to process, to live. It also means I want to help out, in whatever way I realistically can. And taking little steps to connect means training that black dog, taming him, taking him in hand.

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Tact and the Real Message

“I know how you’re feeling,” came a voice from somewhere close, “and I do feel really sorry for you.”

And my heart grew and I forgave her words because she is my daughter and this is her best. They were not hollow words spoken with an adult’s urgency to fix or with undertones of self-interest. She has little idea of nuance and tact.

So when she says ‘I know how you’re feeling’ she honestly believes she does. Perhaps she does have a sense of the colour of depression or the pain of its bite. I pray she does not know the full injury of it in her lifetime, or at the very least in her childhood. Oh little one, I sincerely hope you do not know how I am feeling.

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What touched me enormously was that she would even try to comfort me with words, though her pity was not what she was really trying to convey. The message I heard loud and clear was “I love you mummy”, which actually was the message I really needed to hear.

Messengers get shot frequently by those bitten by depression. In recent years I have learned to listen to the message behind the message. It’s not about the most well-chosen words, though for me at least they often bring the best relief. It’s not about connecting either, though finding common ground can bring hope and joy; I’m no longer journeying alone on this day. ‘I do feel really sorry for you’ can mean so much more than ‘I recognise your struggle and I hate it too and I hate that you have this fight on your hands and I pity you’. No, the act of being present, of communicating at all – in some age-appropriate manner, this is what brings light to my heart and salve to the bite-marks. My son spends time on my lap. My husband quietly washes up. My daughter tells me she knows how I am feeling.

And I stand back from my heart and marvel that God would bless me so much, whispering his love to me in so many ways each day – using even children so honest because of their lack of tact – and I give him my griefs and my deepest aches, because he is strong enough to carry them all. And though I crave tact and good words, I crave the real message more now and I pray my words too will speak love and that that love will be heard.

 

What now?

Where’s your treasure?

Your treasure is where your heart is. So said Jesus, as well as Albus Dumbledore. You steer towards the things you value. You invest in what means the most to you. For many of us it is our status, our children, our belongings, our future. For some it is a higher cause or service of those who need our help. For me as a Christian my investments only really matter if they have an eternal dimension. ‘Don’t store up treasures on earth,’ Jesus says, ‘store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.’ In heaven there is no decay, no stealing.

Some of my friends stand to lose a lot financially because of last Friday’s Brexit result. Houses aren’t selling as quickly while people wait to see if the values drop. Markets are volatile. Prices are looking to rise. The pound won’t buy as much abroad. Shares and stocks are dropping. If these things are our true treasure, we will despair. It’s evidenced loudly on social media and the indignation is catching.

Our treasure is never going to be worth much if it is in stuff. Stuff is only ever secondary in the big scheme. Love comes first.

Some of my friends stand to lose a lot of dignity because of their race or perceived race. Now in my late 30s, I belong to a generation where I genuinely have to stop and think whether someone is racially ‘different’ from me and colour is an odd concept. So many of my good friends are truly international and I wouldn’t have it any other way. There are groups of people using 52% as a mandate to behave in shockingly racist ways. But there is a backlash of people standing up and rejecting that, which is encouraging. My Divided Kingdom is far more outward looking than last week’s result implies.

Our dignity is at stake if others belittle us or when we allow our brothers and sisters to be belittled. Let’s resist the indignities and celebrate our diversity and the value of each and every one. Our true value can only be found intrinsically; we are created, loved and given purpose by an Almighty God who cares about us. Love comes first.

Some of my friends in the arts, higher education and sciences stand to lose out when EU grants do not come their way in the future.

We will need to be imaginative. We will need to wait longer for some things: good things too. We will need to be humble. We will need to ask questions and find ways to continue working hard, co-operating and pushing boundaries. Love comes first.

Some of my friends in parts of the UK where a lot of EU money is spent stand to lose out when cuts impact on their services and options for improvements or subsidies.

Some of the rest of us will need to see more austerity measures as a result. Love comes first.

Some of my friends who voted Leave feel that the campaign was disingenuous and that they have been lied to. Those who voted Remain are grumbling that the exercise was not even necessary.

There have always been liars and gamblers. Self-interested greedy people and those unaware of the consequences of their actions. There always will be. Neither the Leave nor Remain side behaved well in the campaigning. And, as a nation we have failed to counter ‘free press’ with wholesome PR on what has gone well in the past. We have given politics a bad name and mocked Europe unfairly. Some of the consequences will, no doubt, wake up some of the Leave voters to what they signed up for. But are we surprised we were lied to? That the facts were complicated and not presented fairly? That a binary decision given to a hurting country would not be used by masses of those who felt marginalised to try and shock their leaders (at any cost)? What’s done is done. The grumbling will go on and the memes will echo around the internet, but we don’t need to remain miserable. Love comes first.

Some of my friends felt like they had no voice and no power. They voted to try and change that.

We need to listen to the hurting voiceless millions. Love comes first.

Alongside the memes, the anger and the confusion following the UK’s decision to leave the EU, I’m aware of a lot of worry. Uncertainty leads to volatility and panic.

Or at least, it can.

It’s not the only way.

I have spent a lot of time in the past few years finding ways to address anxiety and fear. Even rational fear needs looking at from time to time. So my reaction to Brexit includes anger, sadness and disappointment. But it does not include a great deal of worry.

Because worry is not the only thing we can do.

The opposite of worry is Trust. Trust means we have a leader. Trust means the leader is actually in charge and actually has a plan. Trust means we know there are storms coming, but we can weather them, because the leader already has a port ready for us. I know this is true because my leader has never failed me through all my own storms and through the lives and stories of countless others I know who have been through storms large and small. It is tried and tested. I know it is true right through my being: heart, head and soul. Trust takes the anxiety out of the days ahead.

Don’t be anxious. If you want to know more about Trust there are many ways to find out. Ask in your local church. Ask your Christian friends. Ask discreetly. Ask God directly.

You know, I voted Remain but I can see that we need to pull together as a country to make Leave work. And you know why?

Because Love comes first.

Let your light shine

On this night of extortion, sugar and acceptably bad make-up, I learnt a lesson about light and direction.

It wasn’t the beautiful weather and blazing colours we were blessed with today, although I did realise that beautiful days can happen any day of the year.

It wasn’t the joy of welcoming friends to visit from Ipswich, although I did learn that family extends beyond blood, especially with shared memories, plans and hopes.

It wasn’t the wonderful inter-church village light party full of excited children, glow-sticks, truth, goodies and baddies, although I learnt that a room full of children with torches is surprisingly magical.

It wasn’t the next village’s inter-church light stations, where free hot drinks and bags of sweets were being given with a smile to passing pedestrians, although I learnt that you can drive around and they still give you the goodies.

It was a simple thing: solar powered studs. Little lights positioned along the cycle paths as I drove back from the next village to our house. LED cats’ eyes. In the dark, the studs marked out the winding path very clearly in two rows. In fact, the cycle path was far clearer than the road. Rows of little lights leading the way home.

I want to say something that doesn’t sound like a trite modern-day parable about light and direction, so I will make this personal. Those lights, which I had driven past every day when taking Lily to school, I had never noticed before. They actually light the way through the darkest sections of the route between the villages. They are strangely beautiful in their silent witness. But the beauty wasn’t evident until it went dark, and every light in the line served a purpose, a tiny beacon. Teamwork. Truth. Direction. It was a real wow moment for me, like observing the stars in the sky for the first time.

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We all have a choice to shine a light or to live in darkness. We are not working alone. We have others around us who we work with to raise the children in our community well. We have inspirational role models. We have hope. We all have purpose.

I have been reluctant to talk much about our move in the late summer since it happened, for one simple reason. It has been – and remains – an amazing success. Of course we miss our friends, our church family and my parents enormously. But the satisfaction of having pursued that path – which only became illuminated when I was living in the dark – is beautiful. There were beacons calling us here. There were guiding stud-lights drawing us nearer. The experience of moving is never easy, but for us it has been a relief of knowing we are where we belong. I feared that saying that in public would hurt feelings and confuse some. We never ran away. We ran toward the light. We were supported by faithful friends praying and encouraging us. We have been blessed over and over again in our decision to come here. The children are thriving in new schools. We have a lovely long list of new friends. The churches are vibrant. The village is beautiful. The house is inspiring. My husband is being chased by recruiters. I am planning details of my writing. Already we feel like we have lived here for years.

There will be dark days. But there will be beacons of light and hope in those days, which reveal themselves because the road is dark. The journey of depression has light at the end if you look for it. And for the sake of others on that painful lonely journey, those of us who have travelled the dark roads must shine our lights, tell of hope and truth, work as a team to love others and mark the path of purpose and community.

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Surprised by Jam

I am getting better, slowly and incrementally.

Somehow, this happened.

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Strawberry fridge jam. From Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall‘s recipe. I don’t think it’s going to hang around long.

We are a few weeks away from moving house. I am delighting in sorting out much of our houseful of accumulations and speculating on what is worth keeping.

Mindful Eating

Beating depression and anxiety is akin to marching uphill. Marching daily against the laws of emotional entropy and greedy gravity.

It turns out I don’t march so well on a full stomach. I have been comfort eating now for the past few months to the point where I don’t feel right watching TV or starting the next activity without a snack and there is always always a reason to eat. This is not right. I’ve been here before: I graduated several sizes larger than usual because eating and revision just go so well together. I changed my eating habits and lost weight gradually and sufficiently to marry three years later a size or two smaller than usual.

Marriage doesn’t always mean keeping the weight off. Those inches kept creeping back. I have never minded much how I look, but for the sake of my family and my arteries I have been having reservations about all the calories and unhealthy snacks I’ve been consuming lately.

I mentioned these worries to my counsellor recently, who had a great tool for me to use. I want to share it here for my own accountability and to encourage others. I have tried it for the past few days and it is having some success already.

It is an acronym. When I feel like eating, I need to ask myself:

Am I Hungry?

Am I Angry?

Am I Lonely?

Am I Tired?

If I am angry, lonely or tired, there are solutions which do not involve food (and I can ask others to help me in this too). If I am genuinely hungry, I should stop and think what my body actually needs to eat. What does my body really crave? Part of learning mindfulness to beat anxiety is in recognising thinking habits, acknowledging worries, anger and fears and becoming very aware of the moment. When you stop and savour something all your senses can be used. If I tune in to what my body really needs I can start to provide it. Sometimes my children just need an orange, or some milk, or a tomato. They are more in tune with their bodies’ needs than I am. I’m still in creme egg season and using food up because we have it, not because it is what would bring healing and wholeness.

There is still a time for cheese straws and chocolate. But there is also a time for carrots and kale. I am not going to tackle this one head on because I have a real problem with eating too much and too often. I am going to go at it slowly but surely. Having the HALT principle will help me, because I work well with a general rule. These next few weeks I am hoping to learn to savour things better and enjoy what is good and right.

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