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.

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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.

icarus

Tags

I want to be able to do everything. I’m ambitious – when I, long-time hater of sport, completed a 5k run a few weeks ago, one of my friends immediately asked ‘So what’s the next challenge?’. Setting and achieving goals gives me a sense of accomplishment and self-worth, however fleeting, and I don’t really get that from anywhere else. Not for lack of trying, either. I’d love to believe the people who say I have intrinsic worth or good qualities, but I just don’t. So it’s down to me to try and fix that, and I have to make the challenges harder every time.

Sometimes just getting through a normal day is a challenge, but that doesn’t count – most people can do that, right, no one’s going to sponsor me for going to work or taking out the bins. I was struck by a friend’s explanation of how their mental health issues can affect their daily life, shared recently on World Mental Health Day  – more than half the time, they said, ‘ I can only do half of what I want – so I can do work but not socialise, or socialise but no cleaning.’. I was struck because it so starkly expressed something I try desperately to hide from everyone, even myself, about my own life. I cannot do everything. I can’t even do most of it.

On an average work day, I get home and spend the whole evening on the sofa. I’m there now. My husband cooks the dinner, he makes me a cup of tea, we watch TV or do crosswords or I read a magazine. I rarely do anything in the way of housework, because the working day (a scant 9-5) and commute (less than 45 minutes each way, half of that if I’m up to cycling) have worn me out. Today I had to make a basic decision about who in my team should do a particular task, and I just sank into panic to the point that my team noticed and had to help me choose. Excellent leadership skills I exhibited there. On weekends I am sometimes productive, but sometimes not. I do the bare minimum of admin for Rainbows and Junior Church (my two voluntary ‘jobs’) and that’s enough. If I socialise one evening, I’m even less likely to be productive the following day.

Because my husband is kind and caring and (for the most part) boundlessly energetic, I can get away with this. Things are less tidy than I would like, but the angst I feel looking at the mess isn’t sufficient to outweigh the enormous weight of listlessness that dogs me once I’ve struggled through the essentials for each day. I wish I could do something different every night of the week and not take most of the subsequent week to recover, but that happened pretty recently and I know I just can’t. And I hate admitting that. If I try to function too much, I crash. I’m not content with staying within my pathetic, weak, mentally-ill capabilities. I don’t want to. And I am extremely stubborn. And maybe a few moments close to the sun are worth the crash afterwards. I don’t know. I’m not sure I care.

nothing left

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I’m exhausted. Everything aches. I’m soaring along thinking maybe I can be an all-round super-awesome capable mature adult person and then I fly into a wall and I’m not that person and I never will be, I can’t do it. I’m doing all the right things – today I upset someone at work but I apologised to them maturely and made amends and they forgave me and I didn’t just collapse in on myself to become a festering ball of self-hatred like before. Exercise is good so I do lots of that, zumba and football and cycling to work and signing up for a 5k for charity even though I always hated running and I still do.

But the trouble with all of these things is they cost extra. Even though writing down the anxieties that are plaguing me at the start of the day helps keep them out of my mind so I can get some work done, the very act of gathering them all together and confining them to paper is draining and I cannot get that energy back. Whatever food and endorphins and caffeine and medication I take are used up, and more, by dealing with the depression-things. There’s nothing left for just living life.

I can’t enjoy my evenings, the only time I get with my husband, because I’m just spent from walking so quickly (because I’m too anxious to waste time) to and from the bus stop and the office in this sticky weather, then consciously not allowing my day to be ruined by joking negative rebuffs from senior colleagues to my attempts at optimism about how work is going when I’m there, being always surrounded by people who might at any moment want to interact with me and needing to have the right thing to say.

I stayed up an hour later than usual last night reading a book and it’s just thrown this day out completely, like having a hangover. Was it worth it for the small bit of escapism? Where do I get more energy from? All the fruit and veg and sun and exercise aren’t cutting it, I’m out of ideas and sleep doesn’t help, I never feel rested when I wake up. I’m spread too thinly, and Facebook is showing me posts like this I wrote two years ago and three years ago and nothing has changed, there’s just a big weight in my chest and my brain is foggy and I don’t want to see anyone or do anything but if I stop doing that the weight and the creeping darkness will be the only things left.

can’t stop

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I found this article the other day written by someone who has depression but also leads a busy life, and it just made so much sense. It’s me. I am high-functioning and depressed; if there was a club for those people I could join it and be among my own kind; not all depressed people spend days or weeks in bed and avoid the company of others. I feel vindicated, like my flavour of illness has a recognisable description and I’m not the only one. Yes, the description says it’s really quite alarming, but let’s gloss over that.

I received an award the other day for which I’d had to complete various different long-term goals and projects within three years of a chosen start date, all picked by myself but meeting specific standards for length, hours spent and so on. I spoke in front of a group of people at the presentation about what I’d done, and they were really amazed that I’d done this in a period of time which also involved getting engaged and married, completing my final university exams, starting my first job, getting a promotion and moving house three times. I just shrugged it off – I don’t give up on things and they all had to be done, so I did them.

Similarly, my boss praised me recently for having completed a task (hiring a new person for my team) quickly, and I explained it away by saying I wanted to get it out of the way before going on holiday. It was incredibly stressful and I literally lost sleep over it at the time, but I just wanted to do it. To a girl who, before the depression, completed four A-levels (including a couple with near-perfect results) whilst also gaining a grade 8 violin qualification, a similar level qualification in tap and modern dance, playing in two orchestras, singing in two choirs, helping weekly at Brownies and Guides and learning to drive, this is as nothing. For want of a better phrase, that’s just how I roll.

And maybe it’s good that the depression hasn’t changed that, but maybe that’s why I’m always so exhausted. But if I keep moving, I don’t have to stop and evaluate how things are going or even if they’re going anywhere I want to go. A friend commented the other day that I do so many things – I used to just go to one zumba class but now it’s two, one of which is run by a crazily enthusiastic lady who makes us sing while we’re dancing, and I’m running a Rainbow unit and being the breadwinner for my household and helping with a lot at church and considering a shift at the local Oxfam shop because they need extra help – and I realised then that I’m scared of the alternative.

I’m alone now, and whilst I love solitude and need to recharge there’s a fine line between a careful measured approach that will do me some good and either of the two extremes of cleaning ALL the things whilst my husband is out of the house or flopping on the sofa to look at pug memes until 2am. Anything to keep my mind occupied. If I stop it’s so easy to get overwhelmed by the exhaustion and emptiness and then so difficult to get going again. I want people to see the sociable, capable, active me and think that’s who I am. If they know I’m different underneath I want to make them forget and not worry. I want to make myself forget and not worry. What I don’t want to do is think about whether or not this attitude is sustainable.