That Was The Year That Was

Around this time of year we find ourselves looking back at last year’s experiences and looking ahead to how we hope the new year will be. Do we ever really know? As I’m agnostic, with atheist tendencies, I don’t rely on that kind of life guidance, nor do I claim any supernatural powers of my own: I’m not Nostradamus, or even Old Moore (the Almanack guy). So I tend to rely on looking back at what happened to me to inform my way ahead – I’m a great believer in learning from our experiences. In my case, that means learning what NOT to do! I don’t keep a diary, so I tend to rely on my blog posting history to remind me of the past year, and that review is always accompanied by a look back at my blog’s statistics.

Last year was an odd one, in blog terms. I posted 53 times, which is similar to recent years, but not to any regular schedule: there were some gaps in there! Total views increased by over 40% from 2018, but likes and comments only saw small improvements. What am I supposed to make of that? Should I be pleased that so many more people read my posts, or concerned that the levels of ‘approval’ shown by likes and comments didn’t increase in proportion? Or should I ignore the statistics and just carry on regardless? Guess what – regardless continuation is the order of the day. I don’t blog for anything other than as a hobby, so it’s not as though I have commercial sponsors or advertisers to worry about. To be honest, I wouldn’t want that kind of pressure anyway: I suspect I could probably generate a better income from putting my non-existent predictive talents to work on the lottery and the football pools than I could derive from selling my blog (and my soul) for money.

I was actually approached a couple of months ago (via my Contact Me page) by a company wanting to use my blog as a vehicle to promote their product, but as that product was an expensive set of tablets with (in my view) over-generous claims for their general, sexual and mental health benefits, I made the decision to spare you from that, dear reader, and declined their kind offer. I trust that you are duly grateful. But if you are interested in that kind of thing, a quick internet search will furnish you with many companies who would be only too happy to separate you from your cash, with no help from me!

But I digress (as usual). I’m really looking back at what did happen last year with my blog, not at what didn’t. Using the number of likes as my criterion, I was pleased to see that four of my top five posts last year were mental health-related. Despite appearances to the contrary (e.g. all those music posts) the reason why I began doing this was to share my experience of depression in the hope that my small voice might make a tiny difference in the great scheme of things. So, whilst I have at times been indulging my blogging self with the more enjoyable aspects of life, it is heartening to see that people still take notice when I share the message that we need to be supporting those who suffer from a mental illness. Learning the lesson from that, I could make it a New Year Resolution to post more on mental health matters in the coming year. But, as I said yesterday to a fellow blogger, the only New Year’s resolution I ever make is not to make any other resolutions. That leaves me feeling that I achieve something every year! But even without a resolution you can expect more from me on mental health issues.

When I reviewed what you guys had deemed to be my top posts of 2019, it was very pleasing that my annual post for World Mental Health Day was the most liked, by a distance: so much so, in fact, that it is one of just two 2019 posts to feature in the all time top ten. If you haven’t seen it, or want another look, it can be found under the imaginative title of World Mental Health Day 2019 – I worked hard at that!

The second most liked post of last year was one for which I spent a little more time coming up with a title: 2018: They Think It’s All Over. Given that I’m sharing that with you in a post reviewing last year, I’m aware of the slight irony of that being the equivalent post to this one. But, like this one, it is a quick way for newer readers to pick up on what they may have missed before signing up for this drivel – and that one gives you a whole new set of links to follow. Sometimes, my generosity surprises even me!

The rest of my top five posts of 2019 were all mental health posts and, perhaps through no coincidence, they were all reworkings of posts I had originally written in 2016. As I said earlier, that is the primary reason I started blogging, and there is clearly an audience for posts on this theme. Those three posts were:

Time To Worry – An Update

I’m Still Me and

Reprise: My Top Ten Depression Tips

In its original version, the last of those is still my fourth most popular post in the seven years I’ve been doing this: as I said, there is an audience interested in mental health issues and I will never forget that. Even if I do stray off into other areas I will always return at some point.

You may wonder why I go back to those older posts and share them again. The answer to that is simple: I regard the words I wrote previously as being just as valid as they ever were, and the total number of people following my blog has more than doubled since 2016, so I would imagine that those posts were new to many. My apologies if I created a sense of déjà vu with you, but the message is important and, I think, worth reiterating.

Quite a few of my 2019 posts had nothing overtly to do with mental health. I’m thinking here of my December series of music posts – of which there were six – but, as music is regarded as one of the contributors to our mental well-being, there may be an indirect link. On a different theme, one of my favourite posts last year was Missing, Inaction – having just re-read it, even that had a passing nod towards mental health too, though its main theme was our dependence on the internet and the deprivation I felt from an enforced 15 day absence.

I’ll leave you with my own favourite post from last year. It was another of my musical ones but with a difference: its main aim was to show how talented musicians can be found on YouTube amongst all the dross on the site. I deliberately gave the post a slightly ambiguous title and, as you can see from the comments, a couple of people admitted to being drawn in by it. As I said to one of them, it was good to know that my MBA in Marketing (1980!) was still of some value, and who wouldn’t want to find out what Under The Covers was about? That was far from being the most ‘liked’ post, but is probably the one from which I derived most pleasure in writing.

Many thanks for indulging me in this little meander through my last year of blogging. I hope to see you again throughout this year though, unlike many other bloggers, I haven’t planned anything beyond this post. I’ve noticed a growing trend among bloggers to dedicate an annual theme, or a word (or several) for their blog. Having given this much thought, and in view of what I just said about my lack of advanced planning,  I’ve decided that my word for this (and probably any other) year should be: Whatever. It seems to fit me well: what you’ll get is whatever comes into my addled brain. I hope you’ll stick around for the ride – whatever it brings!

(PS New Year = new style: I decided to change the template theme for my blog, as I’d used the pre-festive period theme for several years and fancied a change. WordPress don’t offer one called ‘Whatever,’ as far as I can tell, but I hope you like the new look. It’s like me: simple.)

Reprise: My Top Ten Depression Tips

Three years ago today I posted what has since become my third most liked post ever. This really pleases me, as the whole point of starting this off was to try to encourage others who might be suffering from depression by sharing my own experience. Many current readers won’t have seen this before, so I thought I’d mark its anniversary by sharing it again. If this helps just one person that will make it worthwhile – though of course I hope more than that will derive some support from it. If you are currently having a hard time I hope these thoughts help. I make no claims to any kind of professional background: these ‘tips’ are from the heart and experience.

This is what I posted:

MY TOP TEN DEPRESSION TIPS

A few weeks ago I was emailed via my Contact Me page by a website called TalkersTen.com, inviting me to write something for them. As you do, I did a little research to check out their site and their claim to get over 50,000 hits per day. They sent me a screenshot apparently proving that, but given that their Facebook page only had around 50 likes I was still a little sceptical. I should point out that this site is based (I think) in India, and isn’t to be confused with the better known American site Talkers.com. They promise to let you know within 48 hours if they will be using your piece, which is important to a small blogger like me, as they would claim copyright over what I wrote for them if they used it. Two weeks went by and I heard nothing, so I emailed them again yesterday and told them not to use what I had written, as I would be sharing it with my regular readers instead. My writing – my copyright!

The format used by TalkersTen.com is to go in ascending order, from 10 to 1, and though that isn’t really appropriate to a subject like depression, I did my best to fit in with them. As I said in that article, I’m not a doctor, or qualified to give medical diagnosis or advice. But I have experience, which can count for a lot! So, although those 50,000 daily readers of TalkersTen.com won’t see them, these are my top ten tips to help you get through depression, if you are unlucky enough to suffer it:

  1. Seek help

Try to be honest with yourself and seek help. The hardest part is to make that initial judgement on yourself, recognise that something might be wrong, and to do something about it, but if you don’t things may never improve. I finally plucked up the courage to call my doctor about four months after the first signs were there, but I had tried to put them out of my mind until the point where I just couldn’t do that any more. As a result, I was off work for nearly 10 months, when I may have been able to get back into my regular life much sooner if I had sought help earlier than I did.

  1. Talk to someone

Talk to friends and/or family: it can make such a difference if you know that others are aware of how you feel and can be there for you. If friends give up on you question how valuable they are as friends, maybe you don’t really need them in your life. Consider if you would be there for them if things were reversed: if you would, but they aren’t prepared to support you, drop them. It will make things worse for you if you waste time and energy worrying about why they are treating you the way they do. Find the people who show you that you can trust and rely on them – their support will be invaluable.

  1. Don’t shut yourself away

Don’t make the same mistake that I did and shut yourself away from other people, or block them out. People can help, and you need them, and I don’t just mean close friends and family by this. Even if you aren’t the type who makes conversation easily with strangers, don’t be afraid of mixing with people. Try if you can to get out of your home, even if it is just for a mooch around the shops, or maybe a coffee somewhere. The worst thing you can do is to isolate yourself – our brains can go into overdrive when we have a mental health problem, and trying to work it out on your own won’t solve anything.

  1. Don’t be afraid of it

Especially if this is the first time you have ever had such a problem, a mental health issue can be a very scary place. In many of us there is a natural tendency to fight against things we fear. Don’t! Try not to fight it: try to work around it and through it. If you treat it like a battle you’ll exhaust yourself. And you probably won’t have done anything constructive towards a longer-term improvement, either.

  1. Do something – anything

Try to do something – anything – to occupy your mind. If you can rebuild your ability to concentrate on activities, however trivial, it will help you take your mind off yourself. One of the signs that I was depressed was that I no longer enjoyed reading, watching TV or listening to music, all of which were a mainstay of my normal day. Part of this was that my illness meant that I couldn’t concentrate for very long, and ended up repeating what I had already done. I tried to read a novel, and must have read the first chapter at least five times before I gave up. But I can still recall the first time after I became ill when I managed to watch a TV programme for a whole hour, without losing concentration. That was five years ago, and the memory of that realisation is still very vivid to me, so I can’t understate the importance of persevering. It will help you through – I know that from experience.

  1. Take your meds

If you are prescribed medicine, take it! I know that it doesn’t work for everyone and you will hear people say disparaging things about dependence on anti-depressants. But depression is a form of chemical imbalance in the brain and the meds help to adjust that. If you feel uncomfortable about taking them, or if you think they are giving you side effects, talk this through with your doctor. Don’t decide on your own just to stop taking them, as this can do more harm than good.

  1. Eat and drink well

This is probably stating the obvious, as a healthy, balanced diet is always important to us, but particularly so when we are ill. Depression is an illness, and our body needs to be at its strongest to help us cope with any illness and, hopefully, to overcome it. It can be very difficult to go through the chore of cooking a meal when you are depressed, but do try to make the effort. Fruit and some vegetables can be eaten without the need for cooking, and they are all good for our health. There are plenty of simple recipes that take very little effort and help sustain us. Drink well too: regular liquids, especially water and juices, are essential. But try to resist any temptation towards alcohol: it doesn’t help! If your depression prevents you from eating, it will take longer to recover from it. Again, I know this from my own experience – a classic case of ‘do as I say, not as I did!’

  1. Exercise

Regular exercise is known to have lots of benefits. It can help you concentrate, sleep better and boost your self-confidence. The benefits of good physical health on your mental health – and vice versa – are well known, so it is important to take as much exercise as you can. This doesn’t have to be a strenuous gym session, even a walk around the block is better than doing nothing. Try it, you’ll feel better for it.

  1. Be proud of yourself

When you have depression, your self-esteem is usually very low. You have negative thoughts about yourself, or worse. But try to recognise that this isn’t the real you, it’s the illness speaking. I know how hard it can be, but try to think of the positives in your life: your achievements, your job, your family and friends. Look for the good things in all of these, and build an image of who you really are. Then be proud of yourself, and feel valued by yourself as well as by others.

  1. Never, ever give up hope

It is very easy, when you are depressed, to feel that things will never get better. Life seems impossible, and you question where it can go. But, again, this is the illness at work. I know it is hard to believe when things feel at their worst, but there really is a light at the end of that dark tunnel. Try to remember that, and never, ever give up hope.

I’m not pretending that this list is in any way definitive or exhaustive, and no doubt anyone who has experience of depression can tell me lots of things that work for them but which I’ve left out. However, these all have some meaning for me and, if you are a fellow sufferer, I hope that at least one of these ten tips is useful for you. 

Halloween – My Annual Reminder

The calendar moves inexorably towards another Halloween. Last year, as I have done on several occasions, I wrote about the commercialisation of this date and, in particular, one aspect of this: the stigmatisation of mental health in some of the costumes on offer. Things have undeniably improved since 2013, when two big retailers – Asda and Tesco – were forced to remove some costumes from sale after the understandable furore they generated. My 2018 piece is repeated below, and contains a link to what I said in 2013 about those companies.

Out of curiosity I revisited the two websites I named and shamed last year. On escapade.co.uk I found one costume directly labelled as ‘insane,’ which is listed as ‘new!’:

Likewise, partybritain.com only had one obvious costume:

As these were amongst 756 and 490 costumes on offer respectively, I guess you can call that an improvement. But even one such costume is one too many – when will these people realise that making money out of mocking others’ misfortune is just plain wrong? Sadly, similar costumes can also be found on the giant online sites like ebay.

I really wish there wasn’t a need for this reminder, but I’ll keep doing it until it doesn’t have to be said. Enjoy your Halloween celebrations, but not at the expense of others, please.

And this is last year’s post, which gives more detail:

HALLOWEEN – AGAIN

I’ve written several times over the years about how stigmatisation of mental illness can be very damaging, and in particular have focused on it at this time of year, as Halloween approaches.

When I was a kid Halloween wasn’t an event we marked in any way. Here in the UK we were busy making our guys for the forthcoming Guy Fawkes/Bonfire Night celebrations on 5th November, and hadn’t yet imported the commercialisation of Halloween from the US. So I’m sorry to say, American friends, that your celebration for this rather passes me by! That doesn’t mean that I don’t recognise its importance to you, but it does seem to me to be a little artificial for it to be ‘celebrated’ here. This is, perhaps, a little ironic as the origins of Halloween can be traced back to this side of the Atlantic, in a pagan festival mostly known (in Ireland and Scotland, anyway) as Samhain, though there are different names for similar festivals in other Celtic regions. The name ‘Halloween’ has been in existence since around the mid-18th century, and is a derivation of All Hallows’ Eve, i.e. the day before All Hallows’ Day, on which remembrance of the dead takes place. In the past, celebrations have included mummers and costumes, which I guess has been handed down to us through the generations in the way that people dress up: witches are an obvious outfit, but there are many others available, most of which leave me wondering what relevance they have!

But, as I said earlier, this was a tradition that hadn’t travelled to the part of England in which I spent my childhood. Not until modern day marketing and commercialism took over, that is. At some point over the past 25 years or so this has become a bigger event in this country, probably as a result of the way in which American popular culture has been transferred over here by TV programmes. Never one to miss an opportunity to make money, retailers have been falling over themselves to profit from Halloween. But in their doing so, the boundaries of taste have often been forgotten. I wrote five years ago about Asda – and to a lesser extent, Tesco – selling costumes that mocked mental illness. The message that these were giving children, that it was somehow acceptable to make fun of people with mental health problems, was appalling, and the retailers had to give in to the outcry and withdraw the products from sale. But even after that outcry you can still find such costumes for sale this year among the specialist online fancy dress retailers. Here are a couple of examples I found without too much effort. Firstly, from partybritain.com:

And secondly, from escapade.co.uk:

No doubt there are others deserving to be named and shamed but I was too disheartened to look any further. How can anyone believe this to be acceptable? This is a shameful way to make money, but I guess that as these companies are much smaller than the likes of Asda and Tesco they have managed to slip under the radar. That doesn’t make them any less guilty in my eyes, though.

Another depiction of mental health issues which I find objectionable is to be found in horror movies. To be honest, I have a very low gore threshold and don’t watch a great many horror movies, and don’t really understand the fascination they hold for so many. Each to their own, of course, but where I really draw the line is where someone who is mentally ill is the main character in a movie and their illness is used in a stigmatising way. You’ll know which movies I mean, I’m sure: how anyone can see these as entertainment is beyond me, though I do like Jamie Lee Curtis!

I have no problem with anyone wanting to celebrate Halloween, though I imagine most, either in the US or elsewhere, would be hard pressed to explain exactly what it is they are celebrating. But as these little posters from the admirable Time To Change organisation remind us, these celebrations should have absolutely nothing to do with mocking mental illness. These were actually created a couple of years ago but their message is still very valid and, sadly, remains relevant. There is nothing remotely funny about costumes and behaviour that mock those with mental health issues as ‘nutters,’ ‘mad’ or just ‘mental,’ when the word is used pejoratively.

 

Remember, Halloween is supposed to be the modern day version of an old pagan custom, which had nothing to do with mental illness. It is also significant in a religious sense – the day before All Hallows’ Day, which has been a Catholic day of note for centuries – and that also isn’t about mental ill health! The Time To Change website has eight helpful tips on how to enjoy Halloween without perpetuating the stigmatisation of mental health. They even include a little bit of historical knowledge in there so that you can impress your friends by knowing the meaning of the Halloween tradition. If you’re interested these tips can be found here and are well worth a look.

So please, by all means enjoy any celebrations you may be having, but don’t mock those who are unable to defend themselves against unfair stigmatisation.

Happy Halloween!