Ok, so you are likely thinking: this is going to be hard work. You saw the word “Depression” and immediately thought do I need to read this? Because, well, reading about depression is depressing, isn’t it? Especially if you start off with a miserable title like “Depression: just another day”.
Well, you’re wrong. As anyone who has lived with depression can tell you: any day that doesn’t begin with self-doubt, fear or loathing or a myriad of other negative feelings is a good day. I am lucky enough to mostly have days like that now, so I thought I’d share some of the stuff I have learnt that might be useful to know. Also, writing is part of my self-prescribed therapy: so 2 birds, one stone sort of thing.
I hope this blog will help you to think about depression differently and be less afraid of coping with and confronting it. In the darkness of depression there is light; there is always light somewhere, it is just that sometimes it is difficult to find.
Some of you who believe you are time poor would likely appreciate a shortlist so that you can get on with other stuff. Always looking for the Too Long; Didn’t Read (TL;DR) way out? I recommend taking the long way and reading to the end, but if you think you can shortcut your way to helping yourself or someone you care about, then good luck with that and here are links to what I believe are the most vital things in dealing with depression: Start talking about Depression, Your toughest foe, How can you tell if someone suffers from depression & Monitor Your Mental Health.
Depression & Me
I am blessed. I have a great family and amazing friends. My life isn’t the perfection I once wished it to be, but I get up every day with a roof over my head, more than enough food in the fridge and surplus cash to spend. That has not always been the case, but that is another story for a different day. So, why do I suffer from depression? I don’t know; which I find very annoying.
I used to think I was a terrible fidget; I couldn’t sit in one place for too long. It wasn’t that I was flighty; I just always wanted to get on and do the next thing. When young, this was likely to do with not being happy at home with my Father and so restless to find happiness elsewhere. But this extended into adulthood and I hadn’t realised that I was running nor what I was running from.
For far too long, I thought of depression as an adjective instead of accepting and dealing with it as a noun: for me it’s not a description; it’s a thing with which I’ve had to learn to cope. I’ve never had a problem with or thought any less of people who suffer from depression, but I never thought that was or could be me. In part, my non-acceptance was that I could feel the pain and anguish of others, and I didn’t believe that mine was anywhere near approaching theirs and so not as deserving of attention.
Subconsciously, I think I looked at depression like a game at which I wasn’t much good. How weird is that as a thought process? However, I was exceptionally skilled at hiding how I felt: so talented that I even managed to conceal it from myself.
I haven’t said how Depression affects me yet. I’m procrastinating – I do that when I don’t want to do something. I think I’m frightened that talking about depression will open a door to it – that I’ll let it back in and won’t be able to hold it at bay: the vampire that sucks away at my life.
I am hesitant to generalise, as I believe depression is quite personal, so let’s take it that everything that follows is how I think and feel, and I hope that some of it resonates with you or reminds you of someone you know and might want to help.
What is Depression?
Depression is, most simply put, a mood disorder that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act.
Actually, that’s not at all simple, is it? How we think, feel and act is pretty much the totality of most of us.
When I’m in a deep period of depression, my mind alternates between 2 states:
- unable to complete the simplest of tasks as my attention span is reduced to that of a goldfish, or
- being at its most questioningly busy self, trapped in the thickest fog of indecision on the darkest of nights, surrounded by imagined threats on all sides. It is the signal of me completely lost in a cacophony of deafening noise: drowning in the sea of my out-of-control thoughts.
Here’s the stupidest thing about depression: you don’t tell those you’re closest to that you are depressed because you don’t want them to pity and think less of you.
FFS! Would you feel any less of those that you loved if they were depressed? No! No, you wouldn’t. But let’s not be trying to apply logic when rationality is amongst the first of things to depart when depression comes to stay.
Instead, you fight yourself to appear as normal as possible because you need people around you to treat you like you’re normal, as that makes you feel more normal and less of a freak with depression. And that is the saddest thing about depression: you think that you’re failing at life and that you are not normal and so you expend effort in convincing yourself that you’re not depressed instead of dealing with it.
It is highly likely that I would have continued to not deal with my depression: I had got really good at not dealing with it. However, D (initial instead of name; out of respect to his family) changed that.
I have a friend who suffered appalling and debilitating bouts of depression. Sorry, that should be I had a friend. Must stop mixing tenses. To me he’s still an active part of my life, hanging out in my memory and consciousness casting disparaging comments with annoying and amusing gusto. D was not amongst my best friends. Our lives intersected in his late teens and my early 20s. In the years that followed, I saw him enough for me to like him and now for me to wish that I had known him as well as his better friends did. Later in life, we would randomly have wide-ranging discussions, because D loved an argument; so much so, that he would put aside time to have one. It wasn’t that he was belligerent, it’s just that he loved a good discussion, especially one that allowed him to put on show his broad and deep knowledge of things that many people didn’t know.
D died on 3rd March 2016. For me, days after his death, the knowledge of it was a wake-up call to sort myself out before I became a victim of my thoughts; because anything that could take D out could likely see me off.
D was brave, far braver than I; braver than most people I know. He knew he suffered from depression and, knowing D, he researched the sh*t out of it and reached a conclusion that one could manage it but not cure it.
Rather than getting despondent with that realisation, D got on with life. That meant doing 2 things: embracing it by going on adventures near & far, and spending time with and challenging those that he liked or loved.
D could be annoying – frequently and intentionally so. But here’s the thing: if D spent time regularly arguing with you or imparting his knowledge, it’s because he thought you a worthy recipient of his time and wisdom. I suspect the more time he spent challenging you or just being quiet with you was a measure of the fun he was having.
I don’t know in what dark place D found himself on that sad day in March, but I do know that bad decisions are made in fleetingly small moments; and within a period of depression, a moment can last for a torturously long time. Long enough for dangerous thoughts to take hold and drive you to do things that cannot be taken back.
I wish D had trusted me enough to tell me how troubled he was, and I am sure that many of his better friends and family feel this even more strongly. Maybe his mind could have been changed on that terrible day. However, no-one should think they are responsible for things that someone else does – that’s for that person to own.
Shocked into action: if depression could take someone as strong-willed as D, then I needed to get serious about dealing with mine. The first thing I did was to set a daily calendar reminder that just says D. It’s not to prompt me to think of him every day, though when that alert goes off I do see his grinning face (so annoying). It reminds me to check how I feel. It makes me assess how I am and what I need to do to keep me on an even keel. Through his actions, D forced me to admit my problem – to admit I suffer from depression. Granted, this should not have been a hard admission to make; after all, even The Royals are getting down with depression these days. Depression’s gone mainstream, so, it shouldn’t be a difficult issue to discuss anymore. But it still is; because we feel ashamed and think we just need to be stronger
Start talking about Depression
As with most problems, the first step is to accept that there is a problem. If you have never admitted to yourself that you suffer from depression, then find a mirror and do it now. Say the words out loud: “I suffer from depression”. Now breathe – the World didn’t end, did it? [If you’re family or friends of someone you believe might be suffering from depression & think they can handle questions, then ask them: do you suffer from depression – Do you want to talk?].
Next, if you feel strong enough, then find someone to talk with: family, friends, someone at your local Doctors or do an Internet search on mental health charities in your current country of residence (e.g. “mental health charities UK”). Or if you don’t want to talk in-person, then how do you feel about texting with Shout or interacting with an online community like Side by Side (formerly Elefriends)?
In the past, I have avoided talking to friends and family about my depression because doing so would have first meant admitting to myself that I had it. Now, I am trying to be better in having those conversations. In part, this blog is a way for me to start those chats.
If you don’t feel quite ready for one-to-ones or you are family or friends and are not sure how to broach the subject: share this blog or any other article on depression to show your open-ness to a conversation; or watch and share the black dog video at the end or the Royal’s video above.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, then get yourself to an A&E at the nearest hospital or phone emergency services because you need help NOW.
How do you know Depression is coming for a visit?
For me, depression mostly starts with some external event that acts as a catalyst for everything that follows. Sometimes it’s quite hard to identify what that event is but that is not the case with my 1st bout of depression: I have absolute unwanted clarity on that. I remember the utter desolation and despair that I felt and not having the slightest clue as to how to deal with any of it. Even now, decades on, I can feel the visceral rawness of it all.
It was Christmas, and I had just survived the first term at a posh prep school. My Dad and I had agreed on a deal, and I had completed my part of it by passing the 11+ entrance exams. He failed to, as was so often the case, hold up his end of the bargain and take me to see the main London fireworks that had been promised as my reward. I was particularly bitter about this because although the future year and a half spent at this school would teach me how to teach myself and was a foundational part of my schooling, I resented being torn from the state school that I loved and everyone I knew & liked. I also had to deal with being the only black child in a school of over 250 kids. Added to this, my parents were going through a particularly turbulent time in their marriage, telling themselves they were staying together for the kids – had they consulted me I’d have lobbied hard for divorce. All of this, I could handle: the thing that I couldn’t, that broke me and my family was my older sister’s death on Christmas Eve.
Marjorie had been in hospital for a couple of weeks with Pneumonia. It was around 10 am, and I was just getting dressed when the cream bakelite telephone in the corridor rang. Mum answered it and 15 seconds later screamed NO as she crumpled to the floor: and with that, I knew my sister was dead.
It felt like someone had punched through me and left an angry knot of a fist inside that hurt more than anything I’d ever known. That hurt and the anger that soon followed became the sole constant, unwanted companions that accompanied me on a downward spiral as I failed to deal with my sister’s death. In the initial days after, I instinctively wanted to see Marj – I didn’t know that this was grief and part of the closure that people need with the death of loved ones, but my parents mistakenly thought it best that I not see her dead body. Worse was to follow, as my Dad became my Father, deciding that he was going to bury Marjorie in his homeland of Uganda instead of the London town of our births. His pride stole my ability to visit my sister’s grave whenever I want: I think that’s when I decided my Father was dead to me too.
My parents separated 5 years later and divorce followed 2 years after that. With regards to my Father, my Mum’s capacity for forgiveness is far greater than mine. I am mystified by this, as his crimes against her were far worse than his on me. Perhaps when a child’s heart hardens in self-protection, it takes longer to soften and open up to forgiveness of whoever did them wrong. I know my Father didn’t take my sister, but he took my right and ability to visit her, and I’ll not be forgiving that any time soon.
I don’t blame my parents for being absent after Marjorie’s death: they were present but very broken. Fortunately, I was still young enough to instinctively reach for what I needed regardless, of whether it was logical or reasonable. I needed a replacement sister, so I went and got one.
Some people help to shape your life; they make you better than you would have been without any seeming conscious effort. N, let’s call her N because although I’m proud to have had her as my friend, I’m going to assume the same is not true for her and so won’t reveal her name. I am sad she is not in my life now but will always be grateful and glad that she was then.
It had been a year since Marjorie had died, I was still suppressing my grief and had just been returned to the state system, accelerated into an older year full of kids ready to rip me and my newly acquired public school plummy accent and ways to shreds. Drowning in a sea of coalescing insecurities, I sought out N from my old pre-posh school. She might think we randomly bumped into each other, but that is not the case: N was my safe harbour; she was the normalcy and familiarity that I so desperately needed and to which I anchored myself.
She doesn’t know this, because I only recently figured out that back then when I was barely holding it together, N saved me from spiralling further downwards in that 1st depressive cycle. She intrigued me and became my definition of cool: she was wicked-smart and kind. She would more easily accept the former about her younger self than the latter but on that score, I’m right and she’s wrong.
There are many reasons why she matters to me. One of my fondest memories is us as adolescent kids: two precocious 12-year-olds, in her bedroom, debating the “true meaning of altruism”, listening to The Police (Synchronicity) on loop. She was annoyingly right and I was stymied (for a long time). It’s a good memory.
I’m sad that she’s not a friend now, but I am glad that I had her for the 13 years or so that I did. In her company, I slowly recovered from my grief and, through her, I found a way back to me. N was one of the people who has made me a better person.
Your toughest foe
Since Marjorie’s death, I’ve had several periods of depression. Depression is a war of endless battles. Some are won and some are lost, but in all of them there is 1 constant: you.
Depression resides in your head. It’s not a virus that t-cells can wage war on and eradicate. It entrenches itself in the darkest recesses of your mind, whispering insidiously. It is every past dark thought you ever had lounging around waiting to welcome every future destructive idea you never expected to entertain.
In a battle with yourself, it’s the fucker that you can never truly defeat armed with the knowledge of all your weaknesses and fears; it’s you. So, what are you going to do? Are you going to capitulate to your bad self & the internal monologue of what you can’t do or are you going to fight and take your life back?
Have you ever heard of the butterfly in Brazil and the tornado in Texas? No, it’s not the beginning of a joke; the butterfly effect postulates a question: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”. There’s a whole branch of maths called Chaos theory that explores this that you likely don’t have time to study: basically, small changes in complex systems can have large and profound effects. With the butterfly effect, its wings flapping are the small changes in the complex system of the World, setting off the effect of a tornado in Texas.
You are part of a complex system of relationships consisting of family, friends and work colleagues. Even when you lock yourself away from the World, you affect those who love or like or rely on you through your absence.
You are bigger than a butterfly. If you were to remove yourself from this World permanently, then you would likely cause more hurt and pain than your current low self-esteem allows you to know. And if this is your current mindset, then go and get help, phone a friend, do something because you matter.
Man your castle, build your defences
I have been running from depression since I was a kid. Running isn’t pointless – sometimes it’s enough just to stay ahead. However, running is exhausting; and there comes a time when the road runs out. That’s when you need a castle. Not a Fortress of Solitude for one, but a metaphorical construct from which to mount your defences against depression.
It shouldn’t just be a place to retreat to and hide away from the rest of the World: way too often that is what I used to make mine. Instead, you need to fill and populate it with things, methods, memories and people that you love; because when everything goes South and you’re in a deep hole of depression, you are going to need stuff to rely on and to hold on to that can stem the tide and help you to claw your way back.
While you are lucid and not depressed, do your homework. Seek and figure out the things that are going to keep you healthy and if not happy at least steady – happy may well be something you have to work at, so don’t worry if you’re not there yet.
Regardless of whether you have or haven’t got family or friends, you feel you can rely on, research the set of services you are going to call on when things get hard and put their contact details in your mobile.
Become your best parent
Yeah, don’t sneer. Self-sufficiency may start when you stop being reliant on your parents and leave home but being a good parent to yourself isn’t just about paying the bills and making your way through life. It’s about making sure you are as healthy and happy as possible. So, yes, you may have left home; however, most of us don’t master parenthood until we have children; and even if you are an excellent parent to your kids, you may well be a rubbish parent to yourself.
Being your own parent is complicated and weird. You have to learn to encourage the things that are good for you and praise yourself for doing them and chastise those that are not and make sure you stop. Being your own parent is much more irritating than those who birthed or chose you.
As a teenager, if you were lucky enough to have them around, then like me, even if you cannot remember, there may have been occasions when you shouted at and stormed out on your parents: it is difficult to do that to yourself. Or, perhaps as an adult there are times that you have smugly dismissed your parents’ opinions, not knowing that some future time hence, you would be echoing many of their life lessons with quite a lot less smug. Parent Me mouthing words of wisdom sourced from my Mum is deeply irritating.
In parenting myself, there are 5 things that I check: 5 things that keep me on track. This is where my preventive defences against depression begins. Why five? Because I can remember any list of stuff that I can count off on my right hand and still have my left as a spare – which satisfies my low-level OCD need to have a back-up plan.
Questions I ask myself? I’ve learnt not to use qualitative queries like “how do I feel”, as I’m far too good at lying to myself. I’ve found it a much more useful exercise to use markers that I can’t fudge on:
- Diet & weight – when was the last time I used my chopping board and how often does this happen in any week? If I’m not chopping fresh ingredients frequently, then I am likely eating fast food crap: microwaveable meals, takeaways and other assorted rubbish; or worse, I am not eating at all.
Your gut is your engine – put proper food into it. I haven’t the time to discuss diet in this blog; however, you need to work out the foods that are good and bad for you and the best times of the day to eat them (avoid complex carbohydrates at dinner because your digestive system goes to sleep when you do).
My Mum taught me to cook from 11 years old, but in a YouTube World there is no excuse in not improving your cooking skills (Jack Monroe – on-a-budget, Jamie Oliver – on-a-deadline). That said, don’t try and crash-diet your way to health instead cut down your sugar consumption and learn about good & bad fat. Also, check with your GP if you have any diet-affecting conditions, like diabetes. I have to take Vitamin D supplements and make sure I expose my head and arms to enough direct sunlight to avoid Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Is your weight noticeably up or down? A weight change of more than 5% in a month when you have not been trying to gain or lose weight might be a sign of depression. Be it a rubbish diet or weight change take corrective action or seek out help because you matter.
- Exercise – When was the last time I did any? I cycle pretty much everywhere. If you tease me about my Brompton then I will remind you that I am saving the planet one ride at a time. If I’m not regularly biking, then I am ill or depressed.
Beyond cycling, I have to maintain a mix of Yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi & resistance training. Not because I’m an endorphin junkie, but because meditative arts help quiet my mind and have re-taught me how to breath and because I like cake and exercise allows me to eat it often.
You may hate exercise but we all need to do some, so find something that you can tolerate and do it regularly. Pick a team sport or a gym class or go for a walk: whatever it is commit to doing it regularly and make sure you get your heart rate up: because you matter.
- Company – when was the last time I had a proper face-to-face conversation with someone? I live on my own and I run a business solo. Although I am often out and about, in a World full of text, email and messaging apps, I can easily go several days without having a verbal conversation with anyone.
In my experience, having too much time on your own often leads to the asking of dangerous questions: am I happy? Do I like myself? Would anyone miss me if… Unless you have serious amounts of Zen, be careful of hanging out in your head for large amounts of time without talking to anyone else. We are not meant to fly solo – people are not good at being alone – we are social creatures.
If you’re avoiding calling people because you think they’ll be too busy and that then proves to be the case, do not take it as a personal rejection. Do not go on a booze binge – that will not help. Seek out someone else to talk to or indulge yourself in a healthy pastime, because you matter.
- Cleanliness – When did I last wash and do laundry? Yep, Parenting 101 – keep yourself clean. If it’s been a week and you’re not doing this bare minimum, then seek out help, because you matter.
- Soul Nourishment – did I bank a good memory today? When did I last feel any joy – on a scale of 1-10, below 5 is never good and just maintaining a consistent 5 is a level of grey that needs to be interrupted.
The World is full of endless wonders. You can find some small piece of amazing in most days, but every day you miss it because you’re not paying attention.
Seriously, go out for a 5-minute walk and do this simple exercise: look as far down the road/path, that you’re about to walk, as you can and then gradually drawback along that line of sight, taking your gaze up and down, noting things that you daily pass.
Now slowly walk that path and pay attention to everything you usually ignore or miss. There’s a lot going on in front of us and at the periphery of our vision that we miss because we’re not living in that moment, we’re too often mentally elsewhere doing something we will be unable to later remember. Stop doing that, be more present in the living moment and find at least one of wonder every day – a sunrise, a sunset, a pretty neighbour dancing like an elemental force of nature – an embodiment of joy that even if you can’t currently feel it, you hope that you will again. Whatever that moment in your day is, take a mental polaroid and memory-bank it for the next time depression comes calling.
Invest in family & friends
I was taught by an old friend:
“When help is needed; if you can help, then you should”.
She later explained that:
“Not just because one day it might be you or someone that you love who needs help, but because it is the human and decent thing to do”.
I know this to be true because I have been the fortunate recipient of such help.
- When my parents’ marriage was on fire: the brothers L & L let me crash at theirs for weeks without any questions.
- There was the Q redundancy through which the Thurs Night Club (TNC) kept me sane & my mate V invited me to live with him when I think he knew I was desperate (just as I had done so for him long ago).
- And then there are the countless times when one or more of the three little sisters (NH, V & S) I had adopted, as back-ups to N who had started developing an interest in boys she fancied over boys she liked, would somehow know when to seek me out.
I suspect that none of the people above knows the importance of the solace they gave then and the times since; but I do: they made me feel that I mattered.
Trust me on this one thing if nothing else: you will never be your best self without the input from those who know and love you despite all of your many, many faults. So, make an effort and invest in your family and friends – one day, you might need to rely on one or more of them to save you from yourself.
The younger me was not a person of which to be proud: too much about self and not about others. It took me too long to learn that money buys comfort and freedom, but you don’t need a lot beyond minimal Maslow to be content – you just need enough not to feel under threat of being unable to provide for yourself and those that you love.
I am fortunate to have a large family, but it is mainly my UK family who have made me a far better person than I ever would have been without them. Mum gets MVP status because I’m still alive and a decent person but there was a lot of help from Aunts and Uncles (Great and otherwise).
And then there’s the family that I chose and was lucky enough to be accepted by:
- my Ealing family
- my University family
- my Q family, and
- my TNC family.
I don’t think most of my biological or chosen families know just how much they changed me way back when, nor how they still influence my thinking and decisions now: many of them are annoyingly in the room (unseen) when I have an important issue to resolve, offering unasked but valuable advice. I love them all and I ought to tell them that more often than I do.
And here’s the thing that you haven’t thought of or rarely do; you are that biological or chosen family to and for others: you matter.
At some stage, you are going to suffer a bout of depression. Maybe you’ll be able to cope with it by yourself but perhaps you won’t. If you cannot, then you’re going to need to have prepped friends and family to be the defensive line that you can’t be then, so invest time and effort now in those relationships. Yes, make sure some of them know about your depression and know who to call when you’re in a hole but, more importantly, have fun times and make good memories with them and the rest of your family and friends.
Invest in others – do something charitable
Doing stuff for other people you don’t know will nourish your soul. At university, I ran a weekly kids project for 5 years, which was all kinds of stress and led to me doing nothing for far too many years after but was ultimately worth it. Then Grenfell happened and, for a year, I committed hard again, perhaps a little too much.
If you can’t spare time (can you really not spare a few hours a week?) then can you make a regular donation to a charity that fits with your values and priorities? When I remember that I’ve forgotten to get my charity on I am fortunate to be able to nurse that guilt with my decades-long £20 monthly direct debit to WaterAid (ok, it’s only been since 2007, but that means I’m into my second decade). This non-altruistic act (bloody N) started in honour of another friend, AH. It started because of her, but I am going to take credit for continuing with it.
If you cannot or don’t want to be a regular volunteer or donor, then maybe do some fundraising activity of your own. However, don’t be surprised if people fail to donate at or anywhere near as much as you’d hoped. In any one month, I seem to have multiple friends asking for donations and I can’t afford all of them, especially the serial go-getters.
Make memories worth keeping
When I’m weary, feeling small, I have a well of good memories from which to replenish my soul and remind myself that I matter. My memory is better than most people I know; because of my sister Marjorie, I learnt early in life to use it more. I learnt to take mental polaroids and later, A, taught me to “remember those you love well and think & talk of them often”.
Revel in the time that you spend with people. It can be happy. It can be sad. It can be many things, but if they chose you to be there, it’s because they value you and that is worth remembering. Family and friends will save you even when they’re not in the room.
Oh, and don’t just limit yourself to people. Some of the most serene & pleasurable memories I have are from times when I was on my own in places near and far; at peace with the World.
Make good memories – stuff you can look back on and hold on to and bank them. In the longest of seconds memories can remind you that you matter.
It’s ok to cancel & to be cancelled on
In this life, the only thing of value that we all have is time. How we choose to spend the time we have says much about what and whom we love.
Always remember when accepting or rejecting an invitation that the person extending it to you, for some reason, values your time and wants to spend some of theirs with you.
On the flip side, an invitation declined is not necessarily a rejection of you. People have busy lives of conflicting priorities and stuff that you have no idea about; and if they have kids, then their life is no longer their own, so do not be surprised that you are not at the top of their list. That said, sometimes people are just crap and let you down, but you are probably crap to others too, so suck it up. Always accept with grace a polite no or cancellation and don’t wallow in perceived slights because it’s likely for a good reason as most of your friends and family are not misanthropes. Book in something else fun to do with someone else or by yourself.
If you’re the person doing the rejecting or cancelling then do it with consideration: give adequate notice and a proper apology. Have a good reason and if you haven’t got one, then don’t reject or cancel – don’t be a crap friend.
I have 2 good female friends, SM & SP, who don’t know each other but who both regularly used to cancel on me. This was annoying until I realised how much their depression severely hampered them. Now, if they cancel, I’m ok with it because I know they will likely still be torturing themselves over it months later despite my constant protestations that it’s alright.
It is ok to cancel or to be cancelled on so long as people know and feel that they matter.
Confronting bad habits and addictions
There is stuff that you need to stop doing because it either holds you back or it damages you. If you’re like me, then your habits get worse when depression comes for a visit – I alternate between :
- Hesitancy – when things get rough, I am the King of avoidance. I somehow put a never-ending series of hurdles into my path that prevents me from properly starting, let alone getting close to finishing anything. My thought process gets gridlocked and thoughts weigh you down – they hold you back, preventing you from moving forward
- Switch-tasking – or as it ought to be known the art of simultaneously doing many unconnected things poorly. As I sink into depression, I habitually start new tasks before I’ve finished older ones and then try to catch-up through what I think is “multi-tasking” but is not. This rarely works out well for me.
These 2 things may seem quite small, but when not properly addressed they stop me from getting things done which leads to stress that stops me from getting other things done – and so a downward spiral ensues.
I’ve got a whole methodology for dealing with this that I will publish later, but it boils down to this:
- your head is a busy place, stop storing stuff that you need to do in it. Spew it all out onto paper or your computer, doesn’t matter whether it’s beautiful prose or near incomprehensible nonsense; so long as it’s out
- make lists, sort and prioritise them, and
- give things that are worth your time proper focus.
Freeing up space in your head is the easy part, what’s far harder is tackling the stuff that causes you physical, financial or mental damage.
I have an addictive personality in that there are things that I fall for hard that are not good for me. Married together with my wide streak of stubbornness, this makes for a lethal combination that needs to be managed. I am fortunate that thus far, I have been able to step back from the edge by implementing curtail & control coping strategies; although that has often come alarmingly late.
In my early teens I started playing video games; a lot. I had a need to master and beat them that borders on the pathological. Wasted hours and days were spent in that pathetic pursuit. I have banned myself from owning games consoles and am wary of playing with friends or their kids.
Next, cigarettes. I started smoking when I was 15. There is no better accompaniment to a pint of beer, a glass of wine or a shot of spirits than a ciggie. However, starting up smoking is the stupidest of the many stupid things that I have ever done in my life: I know this because I did it twice. I gave up once for 5 years and ended up back on them because I went to visit NH, had a puff with her and was buying and smoking packets 2 weeks later because I am weak. I am now into year 5 of my second spell of giving up.
Drugs followed quickly on the heels of booze & fags. I loved my Class A days (no needles; never needles). I have zero regrets and had a lot of fun doing them. But at 19 I gave them all up because I liked them too much, so much so it scared me into stopping.
The last addiction I properly kicked in my twenties and after giving up ciggies the first time were fruit & quiz machines. I got good enough at these machines for it to become an income stream – if you’re skilled at pattern recognition you can defeat most computer games with enough practice) and I have a male capacity for remembering a lot of random stuff that is not important or relevant to most anyone’s life.
I have one other addiction, and that is alcohol. In my 20s I was out drinking 3 to 4 times a week – this was not unusual amongst my workmates and friends – yeah, you know who you all are – there are loads of you. I used alcohol as an aid to fun but was also guilty of self-medicating and using it as a salve for my problems. I suffered from a thirst that could only be quenched by ‘just a couple of drinks”.
Over the years, I have put in place several strategies for the consumption of alcohol:
- in my late 20s I capped going out to 2 to 3 times a week
- when flatmates with a different SP, we limited ourselves to 1 bottle of wine if it was only us at home, because if the 2nd bottle got opened, it got finished
- when I first started living solo, I affected a rule of no drinking at home unless I had company. If you don’t have a girlfriend, boyfriend, husband or wife, or regularly have dates come home, this drastically reduces the amount you drink, so long as you don’t sit in the pub by yourself
- now I’m down to having drinks once every week or two unless there’s an exceptional reason for more – like an unexpected date or forgotten party.
I’m loathe to give up drinking because it’s the one vice I have left that I allow myself to enjoy. Like far too many English people, when I have a drink I have more than a few, but I think I’ve got my drinking under control and am happy with that – in a 145 day period, there were only 7 occasions on which I’ve had any.
I don’t count football as an addiction, but I want to make a note about sports & their supporters. I am an Arsenal fan but nowhere near as fanatical about football as other friends are. I don’t think football itself is an addiction but being and feeling part of a tribe is. Team sports are among the few shared spaces where men (and it is mostly men) can gather and express emotion en masse. As I got more and more into Arsenal, I found my mood being governed by their results. Being happy or miserable would hinge upon the Arse winning or losing or throwing away valuable points in a sodding draw against useless opposition. During game time, I can feel my blood pressure rising and heart beating faster and faster: I can’t watch any live sport where I have any allegiance without feeling uncomfortably apprehensive, rollercoastering from rage to utter desolation to delirious delight – it’s emotionally exhausting. If you want to understand the insanity of football fans, Nick Hornsby’s seminal novel, Fever Pitch, is a good place to start.
I still follow Arsenal from a safe distance but not as safe as my mate DP who had to move to Australia to escape his beloved Arsenal. He’ll maintain he moved for love, which is mostly true, but would his marriage have survived being here with his other great love, Arsenal?
Learn to forgive your fuck-ups and failures
When you mess up – and we all do – you need to deal with it as quickly as you can and not let it fester. If you have caused someone else pain or screwed with their life or head, then find a way to apologise and do it properly. Then find a way to forgive yourself. Self-flagellation and wallowing in a pool of self-pity solves nothing. Learn from whatever mistake you made or crime you committed and be a better person.
Failure comes in many forms; some are obvious and others less so. Some are material, others life goals and then there are the societal ones – the ones that slay you with all the self-perceived pressure of what you believe to be more successful peers.
I don’t know what failure is to you, but you do – you know how it feels. So, when you get that feeling confront it and deal with it, because it’s not going anywhere until you do. The past shouldn’t be leavened with regrets of actions taken or not, of opportunities squandered or unrealised: these are only problems if you have failed to learn from them.
Who I was in the past was who I needed to be, so now I can be me.
I like the current me: there are still improvements that can be made – there will likely always be – but I have learnt from and forgiven my past self’s fuck-ups and failures and I reckon my future self will give current me some props.
With depression, work can be a welcome balm or a constant irritant. I work in consultancy because I like solving problems and helping people, and I’m good at it. When I’m at work, I have total focus and make good and valid decisions quickly, with little hesitation. I’ve noticed that friends with depression operate similarly, it’s like we have 2 personas: 1 for work and the other for everything else. I think the only thing to guard against here is the tendency to throw oneself into work in avoidance of other life issues: I’ve been guilty of that so many times.
Doing what you’re good at isn’t necessarily doing what you enjoy. You have a job – good. It provides sufficient cash for the basic needs of yourself and those that depend on you – great. Your family wants for nothing – excellent. You hate it – damn!
If you hate your job, don’t worry, you are not alone. Work for many people is not what they love. For some, it is just a way to put food on the table and keep a roof overhead. The World would likely be a happier place, If we could get to giving people a decent living wage for doing jobs that they like and are good at, but we’re not there yet.
Most of your waking hours are probably consumed by work, so if you hate your job, you should do something about it. Find a way to make it better or find a new job. I don’t know how many people are dependent on you but driving yourself into an early grave isn’t going to ultimately benefit them – even if you have a fantastic death-in-service package.
If you have a partner, then discuss options with them: share the load because you matter.
Love something more than yourself
I’ve already stressed the importance of investing in friends and family. It’s not just that they might one day save you; it is also because having things that you love more than yourself gives you something for which to stick around. When you’re alone in the midst of self-loathing surrounded by utter darkness hope is the tiny light you grasp at and carry with you – the hope that you can make it home to those that you love.
I’ve always been impressed and a little bit intimidated by friends who suffer from depression but somehow manage to keep a family life with kids on track and hold down full-time jobs. Stupidly, I attributed them as being superhuman when it was actually that they had stuff in their lives that they loved more than themselves.
Now, I’m not advocating the acquisition of children as a solution to depression but try to fill your life with things and people you enjoy and love. Consider getting a pet if you can – no, I’m not comparing kids to pets: pets are way less demanding and much less complicated.
And things that you love don’t have to be people or pets; activities can bring you joy too. I hadn’t realised how much I loved writing and how much of an outlet it was for expressing myself and working stuff out. Mostly, I wrote letters and I didn’t understand the harm I did to myself by stopping when I felt that friends were not bothered with whether I wrote to them or not.
If you are family or friends of someone who has taken their life you will likely have questioned whether they knew how much they were loved and why they didn’t love you enough to stay?
Stop it. Stop blaming yourself. Do not try and own somebody-else’s actions. The thing is that you do not know all the other times they stopped themselves because they loved you and knew how much you loved them; you don’t know all the times they did stay because of you.
How can you tell if someone suffers from depression?
Don’t waste time trying to work out if someone suffers from or is going through a period of depression. You may think you’re being subtle but really you’re annoying us. Just ask. Asking will force us to confront ourselves, and that is a good start. Warning: we may choose to lie, and unless you are a trained mental health (MH) professional be careful in challenging that lie.
An alternative to asking might be getting them to watch the following with you or by themselves: the black dog.
And don’t be afraid of trying multiple times (come back on a different day, tell them you’re worried and ask again), unless you’ve been asked not to, in which case, be respectful and don’t.
If you want to be helpful then: be aware, be present, be there.
- Aware: look out for signs – silence, withdrawal from the World, mood swings, suspect hygiene (Parental rule of 5 – DECCS)
- Present: if someone is important enough to warrant your time, then be properly present when you’re with them – engage, listen, enjoy. Leaving your phone on or looking at messages is not wrong, but spending time replying to anything that is not a crisis is
- There: be there when needed. Because you were called, or you just knew: be there. If you can’t get there, then get a surrogate to go in your place. Check-in regularly: in person or via phone, email, text, social media – whatever, don’t leave it for months.
Monitor Your Mental Health
When’s the last time you checked in with yourself? No, really? When’s the last time you weren’t rushing to work or family commitments, or fretting about something to do with the kids or friends you haven’t seen recently enough?
When last did you persecute yourself over projects you haven’t touched in weeks, the New Year’s resolutions that seemed like a good idea, but never went anywhere or the books and articles you want to read, but haven’t? I bet you even beat yourself up about not getting to bed early enough and waking up tired, because guilt’s such an awesome feeling.
So, be honest, when is the last time you took out 30 mins to check in with you? I bet it’s been a long while.
We could all likely be better about looking after our physical health more, but most everyone in my life pays some kind of attention to their diet, and many try to maintain some form of exercise. We even have people we regularly go to see, when required – c’mon, no-one’s ever eager or excited about seeing the Dentist or Doctor but we still go. Yet, most of us only ever address mental health when we are in a crisis, well after we could have stopped ourselves from getting there.
Perhaps, the younger generations will be better equipped in the future. I understand that mindfulness classes are a feature in schools these days. However, I’m unsure how many years they go on for and whether they are enough to cope with all the modern-day assaults Teenagers have to survive with social media; where bullying doesn’t end at school gates, or the streets on the way home, but follows them into the house and their rooms.
It took me a long time and D’s death, but I have learnt to check in on my mental health regularly. I’ve learnt to take time out and ask (yes, another rule of 5):
- Is there anything that’s preoccupying my mind?
- Is it causing me undue stress?
- Can I solve it solo or, at least, get part of the way there by myself?
- Do I need help?
- Where am I going to get help from?
Before I used to allow things to fester, I used to let problems multiple – and they do, really fast – way quicker than you expect. Now I confront things head-on. I figure out what I can do by myself and work out what assistance I need to get things sorted. Mostly I do this, but sometimes I do relapse into not dealing with things. When that happens I am first kind with myself, steering clear of self-flagellation and then I take however many small steps are needed to get back on track.
My head is a less busy place than it used to be and I’m a lot better for it. I did a Mental Health First-Aider’s course last year: everything that I had learned the hard way by myself and more was in it – which was irritating but also validating. I wish when I was younger that I had been taught to protect my mental health, to nourish it, develop it and ensure it was ready when it was required.
So, don’t leave it too long for yourself. Find time for you. Reserve 15-30 mins for yourself daily, because you deserve it: you matter. Build it into your day: your travel time shouldn’t need to all be consumed by work, but if it does, then get up earlier and make time.
Get busy living
So, what is my ultimate lesson from depression? I think the most essential lesson I’ve learned is that hiding something that is so fundamentally part of you from yourself or from others is off-the-scale self-harming. And I know too many people who do this and not just with depression.
Hiding stuff is damaging, it’s suffocating, so stop it. Release yourself from your shackles and let the World in. Just the act of writing this blog has been cathartic and it feels like I’ve unclenched a mental and physical tension that’s always been in the background ever since Marjorie died. Writing it all down has forced me to delve into my past and work out a lot of my issues – weird how a boon of depression can be prolonged periods of introspection leading to self-improvement; who knew?
I could have stopped at the writing of this blog and locked it away. As I got closer to this ending, I kept thinking that it’s enough that I have learnt lots, what is the point in putting this before family and friends? It’s just going to create a kerfuffle, so better to just not. And there you go – classic burying behaviour: see a problem – get your spade. I’m done with doing that; I’m done with short-term head-in-the-sand tactics and carrying around burdens that I don’t need to bear.
If you want people to truly know you and to know yourself then you have to be willing to share – you have to be open about yourself. Yes, you run the risk of ridicule, but a benefit is that you will quickly discover who is worth keeping in your life. If your fear is that talking about depression will affect your standing at work, then don’t come out at work.
Stop fearing depression. Depression is not a weakness. If you are living with depression, you have strength; and every day you use that strength to keep going. However, just plodding along with depression, just existing, doesn’t need to be your final destination – life can be far better than that. Find what works for you and know that it will take time and effort – start the conversation with yourself or someone else.
So, here I am with my daily D alert reminding me to be self-aware and to assess my mental health. D is one of many people keeping me alive – I can hear him heartily laughing at this (git). Remembering him keeps me on track: it reminds me that I matter.
I don’t know if I should seek out a formal diagnosis for my depression. I don’t feel like I need the validation of a doctor, psychiatrist or any other mental health professional. I am ok with where I am at: I am ok with me. It’s taken a long while, but I am at peace.
There’s a lot of life to be catching up with, a lot of life to get busy living.
Interested in reading more like this?
© JAK 2019
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Created: 29th Sept 2017, Published: 18th May 2019
13th, 14th, 17th, 18th & 19th Sept 2019 – minor reading experience edits
22nd Sept 2019 – addition of Previous & Next links
4th Oct 2020 – updated closed Elefriends’ link with Side by Side replacement
5th Apr 2021 – minor readability edits