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Don’t Give Up

December 9, 2015 8 comments

I know I said I was only going to post Christmas-related pieces this month but this is too significant for me to pass by unnoticed. As I have often said, I started this blog to share my experiences of depression, in the hope that this would be helpful to other sufferers. Amazingly – to me, anyway – it has been, and many have told me this. So, especially for those who also suffer from this dreadful illness, I wanted to share here a post I made to Facebook friends on Monday:

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Of course, I’m not sufficiently naïve to think that I may never need anti-depressants again. Depression is a pervasive disease, and it can return. It doesn’t need any triggers and, whilst I am happy and enjoying life at present there is no guarantee that this will always be true. But I think it is important to share this to give a message. Four years ago I didn’t think I could ever live without medication to support me. Counselling was a huge help, when it eventually happened, and I have continued to improve since then. I know from reading your posts that many of you are suffering from depression right now, and the experiences you share are, sadly, very recognisable to me. My message is:

Please, don’t ever give up!

It may not seem possible now but things can and will get better for you. Try to concentrate on the positives in your life – yes, there are always some to be found, however hard it may be to see them. Stay strong, take help and support when they are offered, and focus on where you want to be and how you want to feel. You won’t suddenly be ‘cured,’ in fact I doubt that we could ever describe ourselves as being that, but take the little steps. They lead you towards where you want to be.

And if you think I can be of any help to you, as a virtual sounding board or to ask anything of me, I am always happy to chat with you. If you’d like that to be private feel free to use the Contact Me form and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. And if you want to know what this is all about for me, take a look at the posts in the My Story menu above.

Take care.

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365 Days Later

July 11, 2013 4 comments

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.

Pluto and its moons - never say this blog isn't educational!

Pluto and its moons – never say this blog isn’t educational!

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?

They all say that!

They all say that!

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.

The kind of ignorance, insensitivity and abuse I'd like to see removed from our world

The kind of ignorance, insensitivity and abuse I’d like to see removed from our world

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.

My future?

My future?

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.

London, 11 July 2012 - A rainbow to symbolise hope for the future?

London, 11 July 2012 – A rainbow to symbolise hope for the future?
(Photo by Ian Wylie, from the Daily Telegraph)

Thank you for reading and here’s to happy days for all! 🙂

The Story of My Illness – Part Three

November 7, 2012 16 comments

For this third post on my experience I’m pulling together a number of thoughts about the process of overcoming depression and of ‘getting better’, as it has been for me. As this is a long article I’ve divided it into sections, to make it easier to digest.

 

Human ‘MOT’

Alongside the treatment for depression my GP started a series of tests to establish if there were any physical conditions for which I needed treatment. I’m overweight, so there were some obvious possibilities. I was given one of those cards to take to the hospital for blood tests – it felt like I’d hit the jackpot, every box had been ticked and a few other tests had been written in the blank space too! I was also referred for an ECG, as my GP had noted some irregularity in my heartbeat, which she thought might have been a contributory factor in the sleep problems. And my blood pressure was apparently very high, well into the range of being treatable, although she didn’t tell me that at the time! Fortunately it was back down to a more normal level within a couple of weeks, so treatment wasn’t required, and amazingly most of the tests were OK. Cholesterol was low to normal, not sky high as might have been expected, and there was no diabetes or anything else to worry about. But the tests showed something odd with my liver, so I was then sent for a liver scan. Again, fortunately, this showed no abnormalities.

Ironically, I think, I work for an NHS Trust which provides mental health services. I’m not a clinician, but I know how much emphasis we place on caring for patients’ physical wellbeing as well as their mental health. I now see why. Just to be reassured that there was nothing to worry about with my body was good for my mental health – at least there were no other problems to worry about. I still have my sleep problems, but this is a big subject so I’m intending to do a separate piece about it.

 

Getting ‘better’

Despite those ongoing sleep issues I seem to be getting by sufficiently well to function in the real world again, albeit slowly and carefully. The depression is more difficult to pin down. I feel better and since I’ve been back at work many people have told me I’m looking well, and that they can even see an improvement in the time I’ve been back. But I know that I’m not ‘cured.’ I’m not sure if that is even possible. I have to accept that this may be something I’m going to be fighting for the rest of my life.

I have what Winston Churchill called ‘black dog’ days. These manifest themselves as a sudden, severe downward shift in mood, which usually happens for no reason, and out of nowhere. They only last a day or two, and at the time of writing it is six weeks since the most recent one. I am very vulnerable at such times, as I can give the outward impression of functioning well, but inside I know how much of an effort I have to make. I think I’ve had three or four of these since going back to work, but haven’t missed a day’s work from them. But they play havoc with my emotions and with my ability to interact with people, particularly those to whom I feel close. I can behave stupidly, I can behave badly, and on one occasion the damage has not been possible to repair, although I hope that it might at some point. However, I am learning from experience. I can now recognise the signs of the sudden mood changes, and when I am in a dark place again. But it is this level of self-awareness which is in itself a sign of getting better, I think. This view is shared by all of the professionals, and I now have to turn the ability to recognise those signs into the ability to exercise more control over my emotions and actions, until the black dog has gone.

Something else I have experienced for the first time in my life is a panic attack. A couple of weeks after I went back to work I was in a large crowd outside the local station, which was closed for safety reasons while a smoking train was hosed down further up the line.  Although of course it wasn’t, I gradually came to feel that the crowd was pressing in on me, like a large, shapeless monster, and as this feeling got worse I felt progressively less able to cope. It got to the point where all I could do was get out of it, and as I live close to the station I went home and emailed work to say I wouldn’t be in. Apparently, this is quite normal for someone coming out of depression, as you adjust to being back in the world again, and I’ve been told that it may well happen again. All part of the experience!

I have been on the second highest level of medication possible for the past ten months. Both my psychiatrist and my GP think it is too early to reduce the dosage, as my ‘recovery’ may be put back. I’m disappointed at this, but recognise that they are professionally qualified to make that assessment, and they are doing it because they believe it to be right for me. I know I’m still fragile and vulnerable – even on days when the black dog hasn’t come to visit, little things can upset me when I know that they shouldn’t, but I feel powerless to stop them. An unkind or insensitive word or action that wouldn’t normally hurt me can now assume huge importance. So I know that they are right: I’m not ‘100%’ yet, if I ever will be. And how is ‘100%’ defined anyway, in relation to mental health?

Going back to work

After initially seeing my GP fortnightly, she began to see me for a monthly review instead. I felt this was a sign I was getting better, and each time I went to see her I thought ‘this is my time; I can go back to work now’. And for three or four months I came out of the surgery disappointed. But I now realise that depression isn’t an easy thing to overcome, and identifying the right time to go back to work isn’t easy, either. Being realistic, I was the last person to be able to judge that for myself! When my GP felt that I might be able to cope with work again, I was referred to the Employee Health Service (EHS) for an assessment. This resulted in a staggered return, working mornings to begin with, leading into some full days, over a four week period until I was full-time again. But the EHS was also able to arrange for me to have counselling, much more quickly than the local service to which I had been referred when I first saw the psychiatrist eight months earlier, and I started counselling a week after my first assessment with the EHS. This then led to a suggestion from my counsellor that I start using the hospital gym service too. At the time of writing I’m just coming to the end of my fourth month back, and generally I’m feeling good. I still feel very tired, partly due to my sleep difficulties and partly, I think, to the mental pressure of functioning regularly in the work setting, but I’ve learned not to expect too much of myself. I am working more regular hours than before I was ill, when I almost always did an hour more than standard every day. People have been lovely to me; I’ve enjoyed getting back into a routine and having regular contact with the world around me. I am even finding it easy to get into work at least an hour earlier than before I became ill, so things are looking up! But I still feel fragile and vulnerable, knowing that something could set me off. I don’t cry as much as I was doing, but it does still happen. I just dread the thought that it could happen in public, either at work or somewhere else.

Counselling

I’ve never had any counselling before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Contrary to popular misconception, there weren’t any questions about what my mother did to me while I was in the womb to make me the way I am! The focus has been on picking out things in my life and my character, which if addressed can help me improve. My counsellor was able to read me well after just a couple of sessions, and was very adept at knowing which buttons to press to make me think about myself in new ways. As I have said, this is being written at his suggestion, both to help me work out what has happened to me and also to share it in the hope that it helps others. And I can see that it does help me. Whilst I’ve always been able to talk a lot about myself it has been about the superficial, everyday things, not my innermost thoughts and feelings, which I have, I think, hidden away and not given enough thought to throughout my life. We agreed at our most recent session, yesterday, that we had taken this as far as we could and I’ve therefore been discharged from this part of my treatment. I know that the door is always open if I feel the need for help in the future, which is comforting. But the one thing I would say about the whole counselling process is that if you are in the same situation I was, do give it a chance. Many people see it as pointless: they think you just talk aimlessly about yourself. It is far from being that! I have been challenged, made to think and write about some quite deep thoughts and emotions, and have surprised myself at my response. I am now thinking and, I hope, feeling, in ways that had lain hidden all those years. If you get the opportunity, go for it too, it can make such a difference.

Losing weight, getting fit

The only times in my adult life that I had been near a gym were when collecting my sporty daughter. Surely this wouldn’t help, would it? But then I thought, why not? I know that physical health is important and was assured that, being hospital based, this was not the mass production, battery hen style of gym that I might have seen before.  It was compact, friendly and ideal for those like me who were terminally afraid of exercise. After only a few sessions I began to feel some benefits, and there were little improvements each time. I then did something I never expected to do: I actually bought some gym equipment for home. I now exercise regularly and am enjoying it! Alongside this, I was referred to the dietician at my GP practice. I needed to lose a lot of weight but was wary of ‘going on a diet’ as there are so many, each of which claims to be the best thing since sliced bread (sorry!) until they are discredited. Again, I had a pleasant surprise. The conversation was largely around how to eat a healthy and balanced diet, without the need to start a formal diet programme. So far, this seems to be working: I have lost 17kg in 19 weeks, and I feel so much better for cutting out all the bad stuff and eating well. This then has a circular effect: the happier I feel about losing weight and getting fitter, the better my general mood is. My advice, in the words of the prophet Nike, is ‘Just Do It!’

 

Support

I don’t have many close friends; I’ve never really been any good at keeping in touch. It sometimes amazes me that I ever got married, as I don’t think I’m good at relationships. But this last year has made me realise that we all need a support network around us, not necessarily there every day, but just to have people you know you can rely on for help and support when you really need it, and who will come to you for help and support when they need it. But you can’t just create that, can you? I guess what I’m trying to say is that we should all value our friends and those who care, and be positive about it. In other words, be proactive – don’t always wait until someone gets in touch with you, call them to see how they are. It can help, believe me. This is also a theme I’ll be developing in a later post.

Have I changed?

Am I the best person to answer this? I certainly feel different from a year ago, but is that just a continuing recovery from being in a very bad place? Am I ‘different’ from the way I was? Am I a changed person? I’m trying to answer all of these questions, but it’s a work in progress. My recent experiences and the support I’ve received have made me think more about myself, what kind of person I am, but not in a self-centred way (I hope!). They have taught me to question myself and challenge myself more, as it was all too easy before to settle into a routine which in effect became a kind of trap, and getting out of it was difficult. I’d like to think that, by developing, understanding and using my greater sense of self awareness I am being a ‘better person’, whatever that is! I hope others in situations like mine feel the same.

Can I help anyone else?

I don’t know, can I? I’d like to think so. I don’t think I’ve been good at supporting other people in the past, and would like to feel that I could be better at it from now on. Maybe this is a start. I don’t think I’m offering any deep insights – I know I’m not qualified to do that. But I hope that anyone who reads this and recognises something of her or himself in it can take it as a stimulus to look at the person they are. If that helps even one person it will have been worth sharing my experiences. I know it sounds trite to say it, but if I can change things around, so can anyone – with the right treatment, support, mindset and determination.

To follow this up, I plan on doing the occasional short post in the future on ‘tips’, small points I’ve learned along the way which may help others. Nothing professional, just things I’ve picked up which have helped me cope, and which may work for others.

Planning ahead

I retire when I reach 60, in September 2013. As my daughters are both grown up and have their own lives, I don’t necessarily need to stay where I live now. Of course I want to see them as often as I can, but there’s more than one way of doing that. I won’t be able to afford to live on my pension within London commuting range, so I’m thinking about moving back to my Kentish homeland. I haven’t decided anything yet, but I’d hope that would give me a retirement which would include getting out and about enjoying nature and the landscape, and supporting Kent CCC and my home town football team, the mighty Dover Athletic! Until now, I don’t think I could have done that properly – so I’m aiming to keep up the exercise, a healthy diet and generally thinking more about life, so that everything comes together and I can have the kind of retirement I’d like.

Thank you

I hate phrases like ‘he’s been on a long journey’ but have to admit that it does feel a bit like that, although I’m not stupid enough to think I’ve arrived anywhere yet. I have had, and still have, some wonderful support and I’d like to close by acknowledging those who have contributed to this. No names though, they will know who they are, both on the professional and personal fronts. Thank you all. I hope I do justice to your support and kindness.

Afternote

And thank YOU for reading. I hope these three pieces have perhaps informed, helped, maybe even amused you in places. I’d love to hear your views and what else you might think I have to tell that may assist and/or entertain. I’ll be posting fairly regularly now, on a wider range of subjects, and I hope you stay with me – let’s face it, there wouldn’t be much point posting this just to myself!

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