Wednesday 11th July 2012. Exactly one year ago. A fairly unremarkable day for most people, I’d imagine, but a very big day for me. This was the day that I went back to work after my period of depression, having been away since October 2011. I only worked part-time for the first month, under strict instructions from the Employee Health Service, but I was at work again, back in the big wide world. As you may recall, if you have been with me since the beginning, one of the reasons I was encouraged to start this blog was to share my experience in the hope that this would offer help and support to fellow sufferers. It seems a good idea to look back at the past year and share some thoughts with you, with the same aim in mind.
To pinpoint it in your memory I did a quick search for news items from that day. It seems it was what is known as a ‘quiet news day!’ There was the wide collapse in service by the O2 mobile network in the UK, which I’m sure many of you will remember fondly! And of course you will all recall it was the day when astronomers announced the discovery of Styx, the fifth moon of Pluto. A real life-changing moment! In other news (I’ve always wanted to say that legitimately) the US Presidential campaign continued apace, and Mitt Romney gave a speech in which he said he would reverse Obama’s healthcare changes and that he was a better representative than Obama for African-Americans. He was booed.
Oh, and I got none of the lottery numbers. Again.
I also thought it would be a good idea to find my horoscope for that day, to see how accurate these things might actually be. I came across two, the first of which said, and I quote verbatim:
‘The Moon leaps into Sagittarius and your 4th house (Home and Family), but it clashes with Saturn early and then Mars later on the day. Expect rapid alterations (thank Uranus for that) and usual actions will be scattered.’
I haven’t the slightest idea what that means, I just wanted to share ‘thank Uranus for that’ with you – I’m thinking of adopting it as a catchphrase. The second horoscope was at least written in a language I could understand:
‘Endings are never easy. Unless we have reached the point where a situation has become entirely untenable, we cannot help but regret the realisation that things can no longer be as they once were. Yet every ending is rapidly followed by a new beginning. Look at what is about to start for you and allow yourself to be inspired by this. And if there is something you really don’t want to say goodbye to? Well, there may yet prove to be a way in which you can keep the very best part of it current. You have more options than you think.’
Actually, for someone who was starting back at work after a long absence, that was rather good, I thought. It did feel like something was ending and that I was experiencing a new beginning. In this case, it was the end of a bad period and the start of something better, I hoped. So how have those options developed since then?
I’ve covered it before so won’t go into detail now, but part of the deal when I went back to work was that I would take positive steps to improve my general health and fitness. It seems obvious to say it, but a huge industry has built up around this simple piece of advice: a healthy diet with regular exercise is good for your mental as well as physical health. I know I haven’t been as good at these as I might have been, but so what! I feel much better than before and I know I’m taking better care of myself both in terms of diet and exercise. For example I walk to the shops, when I would previously have driven – selling your car helps a lot with that – and changes like this have been a huge help in managing my illness. The biggest single change has been in my approach to work. Before I was ill I would regularly stay until 7pm or later, but now I’ve stopped doing that. Again it’s obvious, but not pushing myself too far has made a difference. I don’t think I would have had the insight to recognise this before and I believe there may well be a lesson in there for others, too.
There have been some successes and disappointments along the way. The main success for me is that when people are told about my illness the usual reaction is that they wouldn’t have known. Not that I’m hiding anything, far from it, but in the sense that I appear ‘normal’ to them. In other words, they have a perception of what a depressed person should look and act like, and I don’t fit it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not on a crusade, but it is a good starting point for a conversation about the illness and a chance to remove negative thinking. And if I had to choose one stand out moment from the past year, it would be the wonderful day last October when my older daughter was married, and I managed to give a speech that seemed to be well-received without collapsing. My natural ‘rabbit in headlight’ tendency was conquered! I couldn’t have done that a year earlier.
On the negative side, I am still disappointed by the degree of ignorance that exists about depression in particular, and mental health in general. I hear conversations where people use words like ‘nutter’ and ‘it all went mental’ without realising what they are saying. I’ve even seen someone say ‘I is a mental’ having been diagnosed with depression. I’m more than strong enough not to be upset by this – in fact, I pity their ignorance. The difficulty is that this feeds the stigma which attach to mental health, which are still so prevalent in these supposedly enlightened times. I’ve not had much of this in person, but have had some unbelievable ignorance, insensitivity and abuse in the virtual world, where cowards lurk. Have some understanding and compassion, please. It may be you, one day.
I’ve considered whether the aspirations I took into my return to work have been met. Aside from adjusting to life again and to doing a good job, I’m not sure that I had any particular objectives. I wasn’t really sure what would happen. So I wasn’t ready for the panic attack a couple of weeks after I went back – fortunately a one off – or for the continuation of black dog days when I thought they were in the past. Of course, there isn’t really such a thing as ‘cured’ but I was naive enough to think it would be plain sailing. It wasn’t. I’ve lost a couple of friends in these black dog moments: they couldn’t see that I needed support, not rejection, but I tell myself that they weren’t really long-term friend material if they couldn’t accept me as I am. The difference is that I’ve learned how to cope with these days, which I couldn’t possibly have done at the height of the illness. The spells are now shorter and less intense, and there hasn’t been one for more than two months. Maybe I can begin to hope.
I may (i.e. constantly) have mentioned that I retire in two months. Knowing that I was going back to work for only fourteen months must have been in my subconscious, and I would be foolish to ignore this as a factor in how I have coped. Would my approach have been different without retirement coming up? Quite possibly, but there is no way of knowing, nor does it matter to me. Depression is a very personal illness; it affects us in different ways depending on our situation. That was mine, yours will differ, but the underlying approach is the same: seek help and support, use it to decide what is best for you and what you want to achieve. I know that when I retire the immediate euphoria of ‘freedom’ can quite easily dissipate, and I will need to adjust to a much changed lifestyle. That is my situation and I will have to work it out. I hope I can, and I’ll be sharing my progress in the hope it helps you.
I believe that starting this blog has been a significant factor in my improved health over the past year. It took me a while to get going – I set it up at the end of August and didn’t make a post of any real substance until November – but it has helped me not just in setting down my thoughts, hopes and feelings but in the way you have responded. The ego boost from people saying nice things is undeniable, and I guess we all crave a little of that. But for a recovering depressive it can mean so much more than mere attention seeking: it is a very positive means of support and encouragement. I’ve met many others who have similar stories to tell, and I’m grateful for the opportunity the blog has given me for that. It may not be for everyone, but if you’re reading this and recognise anything I’m saying about yourself, do please consider doing something like this too. It can help.
I can’t finish this without acknowledging the help I’ve received from so many. Firstly, the GPs I have seen in the past year. My GP went on maternity leave the same week I went back to work – purely coincidental, I assure you – and I haven’t seen the same GP twice since then. But all have been wonderfully supportive, as have the local Community Mental Health Team, who keep a watchful eye on me. People at work have been great and I’m blessed with the most supportive boss the world can ever have seen. Friends and family have been my rocks. And then there is everyone who has followed me here and on Twitter, especially those who have taken the time and trouble to get in touch and share their experiences with me. For me, and I think for fellow sufferers, a major support factor is knowing that there are others who share the experience and who understand. Although we haven’t met face to face I count a number of you as good friends, you have enriched my life and I’m grateful.
This post isn’t intended to come across as self-indulgent or self-congratulatory. That’s not my style. As I said at the beginning, I hope that those who might need the encouragement of knowing that things can change and that life can get better do take that message from this. My life is good just now but I recognise, of course, that this could change quite quickly and dramatically. However, there are more forward steps than backwards ones, and that’s what we should all be aiming for.
Thank you for reading and here’s to happy days for all! 🙂