To be honest, my mental health issues may have passed without having to see a counsellor. It’s happened before. But this time, the counsellor has given me some really helpful tips and phrases that I wanted to share with others who may suffer mental health issues too. I’ve had my last session so now feels like the right time to blog about it.
For me, the problem is when I’m either right up and enthusiastic, interested, happy, everything is amazing. Or I’m right down. Everything is terrible, nothing is worth getting up for, getting dressed for and everything in the world is shit.
In everything else in my life I deal with things by making plans, thinking about things, ticking things off lists. In the words of a friend, ‘You’re a real doer aren’t you? You don’t just talk about doing something, you jump in and do it.’ Pretty much yeah.
This works great for practical things like home improvements, organising to see friends and family, holidays, date nights, and also my writing.
Unfortunately, as I’ve learned on a number of occasions over the years, this doesn’t work for my mental health problems.
I’ve had depression and anxiety off and on in various levels of severity since I was a teenager. Back then I didn’t call it that, I just referred to them as my dark periods and I would always get very anxious about social things. My anxiety has definitely become worse as I’ve aged. I never used to be worried about flying until Dad died in a light aircraft crash and then the whole thing about flying started stressing me out – the crowds, the lack of control, the lack of space, the flying in a metal tube in the air…
I have a number of techniques I use to manage my anxiety and depression:
- Since December 2014 I’ve started doing more regular exercise which helps both anxiety and depression. Simply going for a 40min walk while listening to a podcast (Women’s Hour / Great Lives / Great Reads are my favourites, all free from BBC Radio 4) usually shakes off minor anxiety or a low mood.
- I also try to eat healthily and in moderation most of the time. I’m all about the 80 / 20 rule.
- I tend to avoid lots of news because a few big very sad news stories can often tip me over the edge. I know it’s avoidance, but for me it’s just taking care of myself.
- I use reading as its own version of therapy and escape into a book I know ends happily.
- I write a diary every day about what I’m worried about, how I’m feeling, and often simply writing it down helps put anxieties to rest.
The thing I fear most returns.
The black nothingness of depression wraps me up like a suffocating blanket.
I once had a dream about being in a supermarket wheeling my trolley around and the other shoppers were putting their packets of sadness into my trolley. There were packets, tins, bags, jars – all labelled with SADNESS – 100ml / 500g etc.
Even writing about it now actually makes me tear up slightly.
Being a control freak that I am. I freely admit this. I think it’s what makes means I’m such a doer, and so driven on things I want to focus on. Anyway, being a control freak means it’s really hard to deal with the fact that something about myself – something happening in my mind isn’t in my control. Intellectually I understand everything in the world isn’t in my control. Like, I don’t try to shout at the sky when the weather is crappy. But because depression is in me, it feels like I should have control of it.
Despite my best efforts – exercise, food, deep breathing, avoiding the news – sometimes IT will return.
The worst thing about the depression returning is that because it’s so all encompassing, it feels like it will NEVER leave. It feels like that’s how I will feel for ever and ever.
This is so painful that it’s hard to get up, eat, drink, wash myself, dress, be sociable. It takes away all the small pleasures in life – at its worst I didn’t even enjoy a cup of tea or my favourite TV shows (Ab Fab, Gilmore Girls) and for me that’s really serious! I remember Himself had bought me a baking book from the Great British Bake Off. I stared at the bright cover with a pink cupcake. It meant nothing to me. Not one part of me wanted to bake. I flipped through the pages and put it aside. ‘There’s nothing you can do out here’, I gestured to the air. ‘Because what’s wrong is in here.’ I tapped my head.
Himself, just like me, was powerless to do anything about my depression when it was that severe. And when you feel in such pain, or see someone in that much pain, that’s really hard to get your head around.
In my last counselling session we talked about this fear. The fear of IT never leaving me and how all encompassing that is for me.
This is what my counsellor told me: ‘Let it ride. Let the darkness pass. Stay with it. Sit with the darkness. Every day is a new day. Let it ride. This is today. Tomorrow is another day. Keep yourself in the moment.’
In life nothing stays the same. Life is about moment to moment. I know that the depression is part of me. And I’m fine with that.
Life is about loss – everything, everyone, ends. Life is about appreciating the moment. To appreciate the good you also have to experience the bad, the black moods, the bad times.
But remember, life is about moment to moment. This is the moment for now, and there will be another moment later.
Simply letting myself lean into the feeling, sit with the depression, rather than fighting it is somehow quite freeing. It’s a bit like not getting angry about the weather or a train’s delay. These are outside of my control and I don’t rage against them (I used to, but I don’t now I’ve mellowed with age). But before, with depression, because it was about me, I always felt the solution was in me to deal with depression.
The counsellor also said, ‘Depression shows you what’s important.’
It can tell you the need to slow down. To take time doing the things that are really important. It can tell you not to stress about the little things in life.
The last few times I’ve fallen off the happy wagon as I sometimes refer to it, has been due to a series of things. In late 2011 I was very stressed and busy at work for a whole host of reasons, then my friend Nick told me something about his health that made me think of him dying, and then, the straw that broke the happy mental camel’s back was a colleague’s dad dying in a car crash. I’ve learned that this response to very sad events is normal. I shouldn’t try to shy away from sadness.
I remember sitting in the office crying at my desk. Another time, I wheeled my suitcase along the platform at Paddington station to catch a train to the South West and tears were streaming down my face. Later, I sat on the tube to work and tears rolled down my cheeks. It wasn’t about anything specific, it was just about EVERYTHING. Life. The sadness. Death. Loss. I remember driving up the M11 to a meeting and being hardly able to see because my eyes filled with tears.
I now know that this wasn’t normal sadness, this was more, because it took away all enjoyment I felt in life. Normal sadness doesn’t do this. Normal sadness passes.
Depression is the same thought repeated: I am useless, the world is dangerous, everyone I know is dying, the world is filled with sadness...
My mistake, I now realise, was that I tried to fight the depression then. I tried to think and plan and reason my way out of it.
This is both exhausting and ineffective.
The best thing to deal with depression is not to try to think and plan but to let it ride, remind yourself it will pass, and if you can, to do something physical that is totally absorbing and not too mentally taxing. For me, walking, baking and writing helps me. You do whatever activity you can manage that’s absorbing.
Thankfully, you can’t bake about depression. You simply bake and at the end of following the recipe you have a lovely cake to eat. During the time I baked I didn’t worry about whether the depression would continue for ever, or what I should think about to shift it. All I thought about was mixing sugar, flour, butter and other ingredients and watching them rise in the oven. Marvellous.
I’ve resisted antidepressants because I saw what it did to some friends. They weren’t depressed any more, but also they felt detached from reality and unaware of things happening around them. For some that’s exactly what they need, and if you need to be on beta blockers, or any other medication for depression and anxiety you do what’s right for you. I’m not hating on antidepressants.
I worry if I took antidepressants I’d not be able to write and I know that would tip me over the edge and I dread to think where that would lead me. So antidepressants aren’t for me.
The reason writing is so important to me is because even during my long dark periods when I couldn’t bake, walk, get dressed, I’ve always been able to write. I’ve kept writing my diary every day. Writing about how shit I feel. How terrible everything is. And then one day I’ll write about a nice song on the radio I enjoyed. Or a chocolate biscuit I enjoyed with tea.
Enjoyed is the key word there.
Depression takes the enjoyment, the joy, out of everything in life. That’s its power. Until it passes. Until you move onto the next moment.
After my friend Nick’s funeral I didn’t know what to do with all the sadness. So I wrote about it. I wrote 5000 words about the funeral, about meeting Nick, about knowing him, about things we’d done together. I cried the whole time I wrote it, but it felt good to get it out of me.
After my 2011 blip, I wrote And Then That Happened, and the experiences of the main character’s mental health are all based on my own. The trolleys of sadness, the counsellor (I didn’t get on with that one, it’s important you get on with your counsellor, you have to click) the news blackouts, everything really.
I know some authors who have mental health issues don’t write about depression because they fear it will drag them down. Everyone has to work out their own way of coping in their own way. For me it’s the exact opposite.
I’m writing this because I want to be open about my mental health issues and explain some of my coping mechanisms and what I do when I can’t cope, which I also think is useful. The more we talk about mental health issues the more people will help others about it.
When I sat crying at my desk at work, no one asked me if I was all right. I think – but can’t know – that if I were a woman, someone would have asked me if I was OK. But a man crying in public, is a whole different messy let’s-not-go-near-him ball game.
Next time you see someone looking a bit down, on the verge of tears, or actually crying, ask them how they are. And make sure you really listen to their answer.
It doesn’t take magic or rocket science to help someone who’s struggling with their mental health. It just takes a few open questions, an offer to make a cup of tea, to listen to how someone’s feeling and to say you’re there if they want to talk again. And that it’s all right for them to feel this way and that this too shall pass. Let it ride. Encourage them to walk, bake, make paper chains, draw. This too shall pass.
Liam Livings xx