no it wasn’t

So begins a poem by Adrian Mitchell called ‘Nothingmas Day’, about an ordinary day which is not Christmas. Sometimes a Nothingmas is all I want – ‘the quiet of
unsung carols and the merry silence of the steeple bell’ is all I can deal with. At the risk of sounding like Romans 7, it’s not that I want to do nothing, but there are plenty of things I want to specifically not do. This evening I am not going to the pub with my colleagues, which means I am neither using up my dangerously low energy reserves engaging with people nor anxiously preserving that energy in a corner. I did not stay at the office until all of my team had left, because I’d done my hours and I was exhausted.

This weekend, I hope to not worry about the people I’ve been most worried about this week, because I’m not their mum or the self-care police and worrying isn’t going to help any of us. I’m going to not call the bank and not go into town to face the crowds of tourists and not think about work. Right now I’m not going to zumba because I’ve hurt my foot and it needs to get better, and I’m not going to eat all the biscuits in the house because although I get a kind of savage enjoyment from doing things that I know I will strongly regret later I can see far enough into the future to know that’s not a good idea.

…And such is my inertia that I wrote all of that on Friday and now it’s Monday and I was late for work because I stayed in bed for two hours after my alarm and here I am on the sofa instead of having a bath or doing the specific piece of self-care I wrote down yesterday because I knew I wouldn’t be able to think of any today, with my unwashed hair and tight chest, listening to upbeat music in the hope that it will have some kind of healing effect. But it’s not working, I’m not working, I’m just dragging myself through the day and I don’t know who to talk to or how to make it better, and I’ll never get off these drugs and I need to practise for the half marathon I entered, as if I believed in myself that much, but I need to rest and I can’t rest because I’m anxious and I’m anxious because I can’t rest. I can’t do anything useful but this leaden despair is the opposite of restful. What I most want to not do is feel like this.

reprieve

I think this is what it feels like to be a normal person. I’ve got energy (sometimes) and optimism (sometimes) and things that have been on my to do list for months are finally getting done. I’ve finally followed advice people have been giving me for years about giving up some of the things I used to do which gave me more stress than joy, and it actually seems to be helping. I jumped in a river the other day, fairly spontaneously, and at the weekend I painted my nails. It seems so ironic that the little things I’m supposed to do to help myself get easier the more I do them in exactly the same way that the little things I’m not supposed to do get harder and harder to stop once I’ve started.

And I’ve got feelings, sometimes more than I know what to do with. There were some big changes at work last week which were announced quite suddenly and I was caught off guard and I just cried. And then I looked at my watch and realised I was supposed to be in a meeting and stopped, and then I got home and cried some more. On my current medication I quite often can’t cry and right now my Dad is ill and one of my best friends has just been diagnosed with depression and anxiety too and instead of just having that in a big blob in my chest I could just express my sadness like a normal person and feel a bit better.

And yet there’s always the background spectre of wondering whether this will last, whether it’s just an illusory collection of endorphins and sugar and caffeine and maybe hysteria because of all the pain, or whether this time that will be it and I’m done. Given my family history that does not seem likely. But I should probably just not think about it too much now, because when it stops again I won’t be able to remember what it feels like to be this okay anyway so it’s not as if I’ll be able to miss it. At the moment I can even relish feeling sad because it’s so much more wholesome than the tight restrictive despair I’m used to. But I’m not sad at the moment.

patience

Like probably every parent ever, my mum often used the phrase ‘Patience is a virtue’. When I got older, I would retaliate with ‘Well, it’s not one of mine’. It never has been, and whatever all the experts say about mental plasticity I’m not sure it ever will be. Right now I’m recovering from tonsillitis and it is one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had in a long time. It had me completely floored for over a week – I’ve been slurping cough medicine like water and sleeping during the day and drinking cheap scotch for medicinal purposes and it still hasn’t gone away. It’s a bit like a mini version of my journey with depression, except no one is telling me to take up yoga or go gluten free.

Also the tonsillitis is viral so I don’t get medication and I just have to wait it out. To be honest I’m not sure how much the medication helps with my depression these days anyway. A similarity is that I’m bombarded, more so than usual now I have a minor physical ailment that people can identify with, by messages from people insisting that I rest. My mum, my boss, people at church, my husband (well, he always says that, but who listens to advice from someone close to them unless it ties in with what they want to do…?) – it will come back or get worse if I don’t rest, I mustn’t just dive back into everything, I have to take things slowly.

What no one seems to realise is I find this so damn difficult. I don’t like to stop and take stock (which incidentally is one reason I don’t do so well at noticing if I’m getting better – I don’t want to make a journal or a mood graph because what if it just shows me it’s all going down the pan? One bit of my husband’s advice I did actually take was to stop tracking my sleep, because if I had even half an hour less than the nightly amount I’d set myself, I expected to be tired and it made things worse. Apparently when it comes to sleep deprivation, ignorance is bliss). I’m scared that if I stop I just won’t start again. I need momentum to keep me going, not endless cups of fruit tea and reruns of the Great British Bake Off.

Also I get stressed, even (especially) when my other emotions aren’t really working, and if I can’t do something active there’s no way to let it off. Talking helps, but I can’t even do that without coughing. I want to go running and dance to the radio, even just empty the dishwasher without feeling worn out afterwards. Yesterday I had to go out and ended up doing 10,000 steps, which is supposed to be an average day for a fairly healthy person, and my legs ached all evening. I can’t even cry, not about myself and not about horrible things in the news – the drugs don’t let me most of the time and anyway I probably don’t have the energy. Resting would probably be easier if I cared about myself, but I don’t. I’m fed up.

easter

The other day, I experienced that most dispiriting of sensations – I saw something that made me smile, but the smile only happened on the outside. My face smiled, but I didn’t feel happy. I’d made the external connection between the experience and how I wanted to react, but the internal connection between my behaviour and my emotions wasn’t there. And it still isn’t.

Instead, there’s a sort of blank emptiness, sometimes filled with anxiety that makes my head spin, long after I’ve fixed the thing (like meeting the work deadline or taking my daily photo or sorting dinner) that triggered it in the first place. As a Christian, especially around Easter, this is particularly difficult to deal with. The most central feature of my life is based on joy and love and I can’t appreciate it. And I feel so ungrateful, and self-centred, and worthless. What is the use of me?

I serve, by helping with Junior Church, but often I do it bitterly. I’m scared that someone will notice how scared I am of not being able to control the children or teach them anything worth knowing or just engage with them at all, and that makes me angry and panicky, or at least something with the physical symptoms of anger and panic but with less actual emotion. I do Rainbows and I’m on a committee at work but I get stressed and feel underappreciated there too. I am constantly frustrated, both with the situations I find myself in and with my inability to react positively.

Messages from friends go unresponded to for weeks, I can’t get excited about upcoming holidays, I can’t even bring myself to hoist up the facade of being anything but weary at the office. I hate that other people can’t see how difficult this all is unless I let myself break down in front of them, which would be even worse. I do things mechanically, from the outside, because it’s more British, or something, just to get on with things instead of admitting I hate and resent them, oh, and I’m jealous because the other people who behave the same as me are doing it because their feelings are wired up correctly.

I’m not even sure where I’m going with this. I’ve got a headache and my chest is tight and I want to just be calm and have some actual emotions, with sensible causes, and to be able to spend time reading the Bible or praying or, you know, anything other than watching TV, without losing concentration after two minutes. Some Christian writers have claimed that depression is just a manifestation of sinful human nature and not a proper illness at all, and the thought of that makes me feel physically sick because if God *and* five years of happy pills can’t get me to a point where I can deal with own failings then what is the point? And if it is a proper illness, how am I supposed to deal with it? It reduces faith, like everything else, to just going through the motions. And I know that doesn’t change the facts, but it doesn’t make things any easier.

So I’m a blob of physical pain and stress and resent and I’m doing everything all wrong, and even wonderful little things like my husband making me a cup of my expensive special occasion tea because I’m struggling, even though he isn’t well, are only enough to poke a hole in the darkness for a moment or so. I’m not winning, and I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t know what to do about any of the badly managed bits of my life, which is all of them. I have facts, but I want feelings. I want joy.

capability

A friend recently wrote a blog post about how mental illness are sometimes categorised by their symptoms, in particular by what the person is able to do. Perhaps a ‘severe’ case renders the person pretty helpless, unable to commit to a job or maintain a close relationship; a ‘mild’ case would let the person get by, but with the odd bad day or disproportionate reaction to some setback. The friend also pointed out that while it’s obviously easier to put things in boxes like this, and easier too to label the boxes using things that everyone can see (like behaviour), it is neither accurate nor fair.

By the very rough scale above, my depression is firmly in the ‘mild’ category. I have a full time job with quite a bit of responsibility, from which I haven’t taken a mental health-related sick day for over a year; I run a Rainbow unit which requires a weekly time commitment; I socialise; I clean the house (well, sometimes). I recently gained the highest award available within Girlguiding, the culmination of three years of entirely self-driven activity. I don’t lack drive, or tenacity.

What the scales do not take into account is why I might be doing those things. How do they know I’m not working because I’m a perfectionist and I’m secretly terrified that if I make a mistake then everyone will realise how stupid I am and then I’ll lose all my friends? That I’m not keeping myself busy out of desperation rather than enjoyment? Trying to fill my waking moments with things that take up enough mental energy that there is no room for the voices in my head telling me I’m rubbish? Cleaning because bitter experience has taught me that the weight of despair when I remain inert is ever so slightly heavier than the weight of exhaustion when I get up? Often there is very little correlation between my outside appearance my mental state; it’s a coping strategy.

It is the skill born of this strategy that leads to comments like ‘Oh, I never would have guessed you have depression!’. That is the point. I don’t want you to guess. Who wants other people to know they can’t even control their own emotions, especially if those other people are reporting to you or allowing you to look after their children? And maybe it’s reassuring to know that the disguise is working, to be reminded by my boss that all of my work is going just fine, but that doesn’t change the fact that doing all of these things well is so damn difficult.

I am tired. All the time. My currently strategy is to exercise a lot, so maybe it’s just physical exhaustion, but exercise can help depression and other things aren’t helping much so I have to try this because what if I don’t ever get better because I haven’t been exercising enough and it never goes away and I’m always just sad? I am stressed a lot of the time, and my concentration levels are often low so I struggle to be productive for long periods at work. My memory is bad and I find this incredibly frustrating. I oversleep and get to the office just in time to not be late so my day begins with me feeling sleepy and demoralised and like a terrible example to my hard-working and punctual team. I spend weekends doing ‘fun’ things but then all the time goes and I’m still tired and I’m not sure if I had enough fun to justify the weariness now. So it’s hard. And I want to act like it’s not because I wouldn’t wish the effects of this crap upon anyone else, but just because I am tenacious and good at pretending doesn’t mean that my box is ‘mild’.

5 years’ time

It’s just been my birthday, so I have every reason to feel contemplative. More than that, though, this birthday marks five years of taking a daily antidepressant. When I went to the doctor to say I thought I might need them, it was a few days before my birthday and I remember feeling devastated when they told me I shouldn’t really drink alcohol with them (I have not stuck to this) – I was planning to have Champagne for my 21st, and somehow the loss of that seemed like the last straw, as if everything had been manageable up until that point. Not drinking would be a concrete life change I’d have to make: every time there was alcohol on the table (which as a student was most of the time) I would have to consciously admit to myself – and to everyone else, because I’ve never been good at lying – that I wasn’t going to have any, because I was on medication, because I couldn’t cope with my own life.

I still don’t want to admit that. Maybe it’s even worse now that after five years, after getting my degree and getting out of the pressure cooker of the highly academic university where it all began, I still need the drugs. Things have changed in my outlook – now when a small setback makes me feel worthless, I can step back just far enough to see that that’s a disproportionate reaction, but not far enough not to transfer the feeling of worthlessness to the fact that my self-esteem can be shattered by one little thing. This week at work has been full of little mistakes and throwaway comments and pressure and responsibilities and by Friday night I was hurting because I just couldn’t keep bouncing back and making light of things and I wish I could.

I wish I could cry when I feel sad and scared by my inability to deal with my imperfections, instead of the crushing fist squeezing my chest and the mental paralysis that means I can only stare into space for minutes at a time. I wish I could tell people when today is not a good day and I’d like them to just leave me alone. I wish I didn’t need stupid drugs that change my feelings and have fun side effects like making me feel sick most days just to be able to function like all the other people can. Last time I went to the doctor his parting words were ‘Any questions… other than ‘Why me?’?’. Another thing I don’t like to admit is it’s not fair. I understand I can make progress by doing certain things, and maybe I am, but I just want a break. But if I stop I will lose all the progress, and I can’t do that.

I was part of a conversation the other day about trials of drugs which are illegal in many places as treatments for depression. Apparently they can work. Why did no one ask me to take part in one of those trials? I hate not having ultimate control over my own feelings, how on earth am I supposed to ever have control over anything else if I can’t even do that? Will I ever be able to do that again? Will I have stopped taking the drugs in 5 years’ time? Will the SuperBetter app I’ve just started using turn out to be the magic fix I’ve been looking for, where zumba and vitamin pills and mindfulness haven’t made the cut? Time will tell. I hope it won’t take another five years.

now

In answer to the question in my last post, it seems like the time to stop is now. I have a cold so I’m off work (a decision which took validation from four separate colleagues before I was convinced it might be acceptable, even encouraged, rather than lazy and weak), the weather is grey, a lovely holiday has just ended. Internally I am still struggling to restrain my screaming, twisted conscience from beating me and yelling obscenities because why can’t I just get on with life, I’m letting people down, that’s unforgivable; but externally at least I am actually just sitting.

But because I’m just sitting, and because I’m not communicating with anyone and I’m not in the office or at church or at Rainbows or in public, the chances of anyone coming to help me are slim. Even when  I am in those places I don’t tend to go about raging like some kind of dervish, I just get on with things and keep the raging internal. And this presents a conundrum: how is anyone going to understand the actual, heart-rate-increasing, concentration-sapping, headache-inducing panic I feel when a decision like this, one that in spite of my progress still amounts in my head to giving up, that most final and contemptible of acts, has to be made. By the time I’d spent an hour deliberating (read: mostly staring into space trying to suppress the panic) yesterday I was so weary I couldn’t have carried on working even if I hadn’t been physically ill as well.

I’m not supposed to need help. Maybe I’m supposed to accept it when offered because it is, by definition, helpful, but I can’t rely on others to deal with my feelings. Especially if I don’t tell them how I’m feeling. But who wants to know, anyway? We’re British, we don’t talk about feelings. And it’s so easy to get stuck in a cycle of feeling lonely and misunderstood and just not cared about, but that isn’t the point – the point is that I have to do this myself, that whether I tell people about it or not they can’t sort it out and of course most of them won’t understand because they haven’t been here. The trouble with just sitting is it leaves a huge space in which to just think, and thinking for long periods of time only really has one outcome when you are depressed.

Ironically, just sitting is actually meant to be a key to recovery – I’m just doing it wrong. If I could just sit and not focus on the inside of my head, and notice the chill in the air and the grey light outside and my nice soft colourful blanket and the grinding of my laptop (it’s been doing that for months), then I would stop feeling so anxious and all the cycles would stop and maybe just for a bit I’d be okay. I think I can do that sometimes these days, but not when I feel worst and it matters most. Like now.

when to stop?

The enduring lesson I took from my four weeks of therapy before Christmas was that in order to stop being depressed you have to do the things you know will help, whether or not you feel like it. This was a revelation – apparently there is evidence that if you get up at the same time every day, even if you’re knackered after a long week and want to sleep until 1pm, you will feel better. If you make a timetable for the week with things you need to do and things you (used to) enjoy, and you stick to it even if Netflix beckons, you will feel better. If you get up and shower instead of loafing in pyjamas all day, if you go outside instead of having a duvet poncho day, you will feel better.

So I’m trying to do things. I didn’t just go to work today (even though I didn’t feel like it because I got anxious at the weekend and picked at my face and it’s a mess and I’m not good enough at makeup to cover it up), I went to a running club I’d never been to, by myself, and ran 5k; I’ve told everyone I’m going to share a photo every day this year so I’ll have to think of something different to point the camera at every day, I’ve got a to do list with things to do on it, I bought nail varnish in the right colours to draw little penguins on my nails when they grow a bit, I’ve got a big pile of books to read, I picked up a form for volunteering in the Oxfam shop down the road, I said I’d organise going out for breakfast with friends…

And things are going okay. Internally I’m not doing too badly, but then I am on a double dosage of the happy pills at the moment. I was a bit shocked when the therapist said my follow-up call (to check that I’m still using the techniques and benefitting) would be in 3 months (the timescale for people who seemed to be doing pretty well) rather than 1, because apparently even though I feel like a disaster (I left my handbag at the office on Friday. My handbag, with all my cards and money. Who does that?) I’m not disastrous enough to warrant closer surveillance. And yes, I’ve never been signed off work or tried to kill myself, but I’m still ill and it’s difficult and I don’t like it. I don’t want to be like this, but at what point do I stop going through the motions and just admit that this is how it’s going to be?

My boss told me today I could take a day off if I needed it, because sometimes rest is what you need. But the therapy says I have to do things or I won’t get better, and the doctor says the pills alone won’t help unless I use the therapy too, and what if I’m just not therapying enough or being too impatient or forgetting my progress and it is actually helping but I can’t tell? If I can’t tell does it actually mean anything? Surely the point is for me to notice a difference, to feel better? But it doesn’t matter how I feel, apparently if I keep doing things then the feelings will come later. How much later? I listened to some podcasts recently about how negative thinking can actually be better for us than unrealistic optimism – by believing the depression might one day go away am I just setting myself up for a fall? Should I not try at all? What’s the middle ground?

I haven’t been sleeping well, which is rare for me, so what I feel like is rest. But I don’t think rest is doing a thing, and I should be doing things, so I can’t rest, but maybe I’m just resting wrong and it’s ok to watch Miranda under the duvet for a couple of hours as long as it doesn’t segue into seven episodes of How I Met Your Mother that weren’t even that amusing the first time round, but I can’t spend my whole life under a duvet so how often is it okay before it stops helping? Is all this planning and evaluating worth it to make things slightly better, or should I just ditch it all so I can have some spontaneity? Am I supposed to keep ‘acting my way out of depression’ until I run myself into the ground? What if there isn’t a way out for me?

survival mode

Still tired. Still bombarded by Facebook ‘memories’ which alternate between telling me how much fun I was having several years ago and showing me old posts from this blog which remind me I seem to have got precisely nowhere in terms of getting better. I went to work today – not quite at the stage where I’ll have to take a day off to recover from burning out, but I can feel that coming. I even had a fairly productive day, getting in reasonably early and leaving before I’d completely ground to a halt.

But, now I’m home and there is nothing to do for anyone except myself, I have just stopped. The sofa is my comfort zone, from which only basic needs like hunger and going to the toilet can remove me. There is too much in my head and I’ve staved it off a bit by looking through old photos but now I can’t even be bothered to do that and it’s about to turn to mind-numbing online repetition – Buzzfeed (which recently told me my responses to a quiz meant I ‘don’t have [my] shit together and have low standards) and looking at people in my Facebook feed who seem to be sharing the good parts of their lives but wouldn’t want me to share my grim reality.

I should go to zumba tonight because exercise is good, but I’ve pulled a muscle and it will make me tired and can I cope with being tired? I’ll enjoy it when I’m there but what if I’m exhausted tomorrow and regret it, but what if it’s just the depression saying that because it wants me to think I can’t cope, but what if it isn’t? I can’t risk wearing myself out any more. No one else cares if I go to zumba, I’m not letting anyone down, nothing depends on it. It’s not like work or Rainbows or Junior Church, the things I *have* to be available for. So I’ll sack it off.

I feel panicky. If you took a photo of my face right now I would look scared. My heart is racing and I’m a bit light-headed and the only thought in my head is ‘I can’t – I can’t – I can’t -‘. I can’t get off the sofa, I can’t carry on being a nervous wreck like this, I can’t imagine getting better. I just listened to a podcast about how positive thinking might actually be bad for you and now I don’t know whether it’s OK to think I’ll never get better in case it’s true or whether it’s purely a symptom that I need to throw off, but I’m so jealous of anyone who has been through depression and out of the other side that I can’t bear to let myself hope in case it never happens for me. I couldn’t take the disappointment.

And meanwhile I’ll just keep going, forcing myself to load the dishwasher and complete tasks at the office and eat a balanced diet and water the plants and go to church and act like I have feelings even though I don’t or they’re not the right ones, because if nothing else it fills the time. There will be good days, but this isn’t one of them.

light

I’m exhausted. And it’s only the start of December and work is getting busier and I haven’t wrapped all the presents and I have to pick up an order from the Amazon click and collect place and I need to book a dentist appointment and the house is a mess and I’ve only spent a couple of waking hours at home this weekend and there’s another party tonight and already there are things to organise for next year and there are 30 Christmas cards to write and post and the Post Office is closed for industrial action and there are just people and things all the time, everywhere, and I can’t even tell when I’m enjoying things and when I’m just pretending because it’s all just one big round of fun and it doesn’t stop.

By the time it’s actually Christmas I’ll go home to my parents for a week and just flop on the sofa because I’m burnt out. Even board games with the family feel like too much sometimes. And it’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year and I’m supposed to enjoy it. I’m almost resentful. Why does everything have to pile up so much at this time of year? What if I don’t want to have fun? Interacting with people saps my energy and apparently at Christmas *everyone* wants to meet up but I’ve had everyone at my desk this week asking what my SAD light is (Google it) and that’s enough people without having to go out after work too.

At the end of each day I come home to my husband, and he gets my worst side because all the energy I had is long gone and with him, unlike everyone else, I don’t feel the need to pretend to be cheerful when I’m not. Everything Christmassy seems to come in big doses except for time, and I have enough trouble dealing with the little doses everything is normally in. Also I’m fairly sure I am at least partly solar powered and there’s so little light now that even with the SAD light I’m wilting a bit. And there are still three weeks and office Secret Santa and the Rainbows’ Christmas party and the church carol service and I haven’t put up the tree and I wanted to make jam and biscuits and when am I going to do that, and it’s very exciting and everything but maybe I could sit in a box somewhere for most December and just come out for an hour or so of Christmas per day, maybe less on a bad day, and then it would be manageable.

But right now I’ve got to get ready for a party and then go to the party and then sleep and go to work and zumba and then work and Rainbows and then work and write all the Christmas cards and then work again and probably some other thing I’ve forgotten because having depression makes me forgetful and then work on Friday and then the in-laws are coming and it’s no fault of any of the people I have to spend time with individually but at some point I will just have to shut down. At university I felt like this a lot and used to come to group gatherings only to stare at the table and wish I was brave enough to admit I needed to leave – once someone told me off for resting my head on my arms at a pub in case they thought I was drunk (I wasn’t) and threw me out – but now I can at least do some inane small talk to appear like a well-adjusted normal adult person.

I wish it was more okay to be not okay – maybe this is only in my head, but don’t get me started on that – I’d rather stay at home than go out and feel like I’m making other people feel awkward by being quiet, or have to explain to fifteen consecutive people what a SAD light is, but coping mechanisms seem to be okay only as a blog subject and not as something I might do in public. Sometimes I would be happy to come out and just not talk to people and only drink water, but having to explain that is so draining that it’s easier to just put on the happy face or not go at all. I can help myself if I’m alone, or I can go out, but I can’t usually do both. At Christmas it’s the done thing to go out, so I do. The SAD light is a first step to openly helping myself whilst also being around other people and functioning sort of normally but it is so difficult, especially with everything else going on, and it’s not a magic fix because nothing is, and I’m just exhausted.