What happens when… you acknowledge and open up about your depression or mental health or whatever it is that you choose to reveal of yourself that you previously hid? Things change. Even if it’s only a conversation that you initially have with yourself, you will be changed; and later, if you share it with those whom you care about and who know you best, then so will they.
Not so easy
This is the 3rd blog I’ve written on depression or mental health and hopefully the last one for a long while. Not because I’ve found a way to banish depression altogether. It’s because I am in a good space where I am proactive in looking after my mental health and less afraid of grey or darker down days.
This blog was, I thought, going to be the easiest because after decades of feeling underwater, weighed down, I felt light; in spirit and outlook. It felt good. It felt solid. Unlike other periods in my life, it felt sturdy enough not to be swept away by the next wave.
This was to be a bookend capturing the things that would have been handy to know, consider, and prepare before exploring my depression and mental health. Things that might help others thinking of doing something other than just getting by and living with whatever is their condition. Some of it I was ready for, others woefully not, and, perhaps, should have been. I hope that in reading this, you will find it useful and be better prepared than I.
So, I began writing this blog on 2nd January 2020, and although Covid19 was beginning to be talked about – it seemed like a distant problem. By March, I felt alarmed enough to divert all my attention to learning all I could on Coronavirus and preparing for a new normal.
In the UK we went into a stay-at-home lockdown on 23rd March. For the six weeks after that, I felt like dealing with depression for so many years had imbued me with strength and strategies for the insular lives that the virus constrained us to lead. A vast forced retreat: been there, seen it, done it. I can cope with this, I thought.
In mid-May, I wobbled. Although I had plenty of in-person contact through volunteering activities and talked with family and friends (F&F) via the phone and video chat apps, I missed being in the physical presence of those I love or like. I missed human touch. The absence of hugs and the 1 hour’s daily exercise restriction made life feel like a prison; with the likelihood of that continuing for some time, of that being the new normal, a savage sentence. And I felt guilty for being weak and not being stronger because I didn’t have Covid19 and nor was I having to worry or care for anyone who did. That was to come much later.
And that is the 1st lesson: you do not need to validate whatever is going on with you be it depression or anything else. You do not have to justify it against anyone else’s troubles or woes, so stop doing that.
For nearly a week, my joy level was below 5, and a couple of times was on 3, disinterested in life: not a good place to be. On 25th May, I was beginning to emerge from the dark grey funk I’d been engulfed in when George Floyd was killed. In broad daylight. By an officer of the law. By a cop.
That pitched me into a swingeing mess of a maelstrom of emotions. I had forgotten how all-consuming rage could be – but that is for a different blog on another day.
So, I think that is the second lesson for anyone dealing with their own depression or anyone else’s: there is always another wave.
Sometimes a small ripple but occasionally a tsunami or 2. So look after your mental health. Don’t live in fear of the next wave: be ready; be in good enough shape to withstand the initial hit and the collapsing weight. Survive that and then build back. You can do that. You’ve likely done it lots of times before.
Whatever the thing you have or think you have, be it depression or Cancer or addiction or dependence, you can do 1 of two things:
- try to convince yourself that you don’t have it. Lock it away and try to ignore the ticking of that unexploded bomb, or
- accept it and start a candid conversation with yourself or someone else and begin to get some clarity on what you are dealing with.
I would not recommend the former as it cuts you off from possible remedies and comforts. It leaves you constantly fearful that today or tomorrow or some other day, the Universe will reveal what you have tried to keep hidden and extract a price your body or mind might not survive.
As for the latter, I can’t promise that it will lead to success and untold riches, but exploring your condition can aid in greater understanding and ways to start dealing with it. Isn’t that worth a shot?
What did I do? I did the convincing thing for far too many months, so I know that it is no way to live. Looking back, I now realise that I weirdly went through 5 stages of grief before I was ready to move on.
For a hot minute, I had the initial elation from naming my condition: DEPRESSION – before quickly settling into camp DENIAL. During that time, I was lucky that things didn’t spiral too far downwards.
Later, ANGER came at me from two directions – anger at myself:
- for not being strong enough to resist it, and
- for not having realised sooner. To have suffered with it for so many years. To have lost so much time to just holding on.
Being an agnostic, there was little BARGAINING to be had – it feels hypocritical to implore for the aid of a deity who may or may not exist. Then I got depressed about having DEPRESSION which was a total mindfuck.
Overall, it took me 12 months to get to ACCEPTANCE and about six months to start building my way to a better life.
The lesson here is that accepting your condition and doing something about it might take you more time than you think it ought – so best to get started right away, i.e. now. And remember to be kind to yourself and to try to keep moving forward.
Admitting that I was living with depression, that it was part of me, was only a tiny shift in mindset. Still, it brought about enormous clarity on so much of my life.
Every one of my forward steps stems from that first acceptance: that I suffer from depression.
If the only initial step you take is to be honest to yourself about your depression or whatever your condition is then so be it. Well done.
Maybe, in the days ahead, you’ll be able to take another step and talk to someone else and get some help.
Whatever condition you’re dealing with (e.g. depression with a little d – reactive or situational – or a big D – clinical), your mission should be to not just survive it. To not only learn to live with it, but to have a good life, to thrive. To have more joy than not; in every day you can. That’s the mission.
Suppression ain’t a solution
Stop holding everything in. The struggle to suppress your feelings; to hide what ails you from everyone else – to keep everything inside because you think otherwise it will all unravel and fall apart – that struggle is debilitating and futile.
It’s futile because there will be a time when stuff leaks out, or worse everything is falling apart. You know this to be true because it has already likely happened to you. But here’s the most important thing: you survived it. You survived it because you are strong; so stop being scared. Stop imprisoning yourself with all your anxieties and fears. Stop trying to contain that relentless build-up of pressure. Find a way to release it.
How do I vent? I do one or more of several things:
- I write
- I go for a walk, somewhere with trees and grass or by water
- I go for a run or a bike ride
- I do Tai Chi or Yoga or go climbing
- I find someone to talk to.
That last thing – find someone to talk to – if you’re having more dull or dark grey days than not, then do that last thing 1st. Talk to someone who is either a legit professional with qualifications in your condition, so for me, that would be a mental health professional. Or, talk to someone you know and trust who has experience of what you have and has learned to live a good life. And if you don’t have access to anyone like that, then pick someone who cares for you and just shoot the breeze with them.
It is better to talk to someone rather than rattle around in the echo chamber of your head, feeding your anxiety beast; making it stronger.
Own & shape your change
It is for you to change your situation and to try to shape that change for the better.
With acceptance, there is the initial high of taking control of your situation. This is followed quite quickly by panic that perhaps it would’ve been better to have kept things as they were when 1 or more issues do not work out as you may have wished. I did that more than once.
Try not to panic too much: change is often difficult when you’re not entirely sure of the destination or your ability to get to it.
I first accepted I had suffered from depression at the end of March 2016. It took 18 months for me to start to properly deal with it. Perhaps I was easily distracted, but Brexit and then Grenfell felt like worthy causes to be involved with – and Grenfell did lead to my doing a course on mental-health 1st-aid. Sometimes you get what you need despite yourself.
I spent months pitching between writing and prevarication. Along the way, I had to confront many memories and things that I had been unknowingly avoiding for far too long. And at the end, when I was done with the writing, scared of the possible aftermath, I spent weeks avoiding the decision of whether I would share it or not.
Would I change how I approached confronting my depression? Probably not. It was a circuitous route, and I wish I had learnt some stuff faster but learned it all I did.
Stop stumbling through your forest of ignorance. Learn about your condition from a professional or from someone who has or has had what you have. Get reading material from them and immerse yourself in it. Then make a plan, stock your toolkit and give yourself some targets.
The plan is the path you want to pursue, and the toolkit is what you carry to keep you on track. And the targets? The targets ought to be the things that you want to happen.
Did I have a plan? Not much of one and that held me back. Not having a plan was an act of self-sabotage in that it enabled me to wallow in denial. It wasn’t until I accepted that I had lived with depression for decades that I started to make progress. I, then did what I usually do when trying to make sense of something: I started writing about it.
So that became my plan. 1 item: write about my depression to make sense of it. I ought to have expanded on that plan. I should have spent more time better considering my targets: where I wanted to get to and what I wanted to have in the short and longer terms
I also ought to have figured out what I would do if any part of my plan went South. When parts of your plan don’t work out (and that will happen), what will you do? You can’t rollback to how things were. Actually, that’s wrong, you can try to retreat back to where you were when you were not dealing with your condition. Or you can instead expend that energy in moving forward.
So, what were my targets? Embarrassingly, I didn’t have any explicit targets. Once I started writing, stuff just poured out.
I thought writing was my plan. I was wrong. It was one of my tools. The finished product was a target, and it was rewarding finishing it. However, my ultimate (then unknown) targets were to have more happy days than not and to be read and understood.
Have some idea of what you want to happen? Set the expectations you have of yourself and of others. If you do not, then you are likely to meet with disappointment.
And this is really important: you cannot set your expectations of others if you do not tell them what you need. Actually, that is wrong: you can unreasonably expect things of people but do not be surprised if they fail to act as you think they ought.
If you choose to talk to people who are not professionals or experienced with your condition, be fair and signpost what you expect to get from them?
For me, the most important thing I needed was to be heard; which, in my blog-writing case, meant being read. I needed people to read and engage. When I write about something, it’s because I think the subject matter is important. Important enough for me to want to better understand, learn and share.
When people read anything I’ve written and engage, it means that I’d been heard – that I exist. To me, that’s always been clear. And yet, I have only ever explicitly asked a few loved ones I thought I ought to give a heads-up and friends I really respect to read stuff I’ve written and let me know their thoughts. I didn’t ask that of anyone else, I just expected it.
If you want something from someone else, you have to tell them. Maybe they’ll give you what you need, maybe they won’t. But, at least, there won’t be uncertainty.
I wish I’d spent more time considering the expectations I had of others than I did and not got so caught up in the joy of coming out about my depression. How would that have looked?
Something like this:
I need to: tell you / have you read something about me; and then I need 4 things from you:
- Don’t make a fuss
- Please don’t feel guilty or deceived
- Maybe 1 day soon we can have a discussion about it
I know that’s only 3. The 4th is harder to grasp – knowledge of your condition and how it affects you changes how people perceive you. Sometimes there’s an awkwardness that wasn’t previously there – they want to ask about it but are unsure how to. Just ask, in a non-confrontational way. Other times they try to make things easier by not relying on you in the same way. It’s meant as a kindness but makes me want to scream that I’m still me.
Still the person who they turned to whenever they needed to talk? Yep, still that guy
Still the friend who would always help whenever asked with nary a thought? Yes, that is still I
Still the mate who knows many of their secrets and has never told not even one? Definitely still that dude.
Still the guy who will always have your back even if that means telling you things you don’t want to hear but need to know. Yep, decidedly so.
Yeah, don’t count me out…
4. Don’t think or feel less of me because I AM still me.
Re-educating Family & Friends
Don’t be surprised if F&F react differently than you imagined they would.
You are likely changing their perception of you and/or your condition. So don’t give up if it takes them a while to adjust. Keep trying: be patience.
Depending on how successful you have been at hiding your condition you will have to reset and re-educate your F&F on what you now need from them as opposed to how you previously trained them to react to you.
Some will go: yes, that makes sense, others will be:
- surprised and shocked that they didn’t realise
- worried how easily you seem to have kept it a secret from them and though they may not say it they want to know why you did
- wondering what else you’re hiding
- deciding the best way they can help you is to treat you like a delicate flower and try to ensure nothing stressful is put in your path.
Maybe some of the above works for you. Perhaps some of it irks you. Whatever. Stop expecting anyone-else to know what you need and instead be prescriptive – tell them what helps you and what doesn’t.
Anything that is:
- dragging you down
- weakening you
- stopping you from moving forward
I significantly reduced my engagement with news and politics and social media – they all take up too much time and often leave my mood darker than before.
The state of the World and my small corner of it is exasperating and saddening. And though I love seeing and knowing that my friends and family are happy (and yes, I know that it may just be curated to look so), sometimes it doesn’t make me feel great about my life. So I often just pop in to say Happy B’day or congratulations or offer up a couple of responses to whatever is at the top of my timeline, and swerve the rest and that’s ok.
Be ready to deal with emotions that you may have long held in check.
Empathy comes easily to me, thanks, I think, to my long-departed older sister, Marjorie, whose 11-year life included 8 years of severe disability. Feelings for others and feelings on behalf of them are easy to handle if they don’t include me.
However, anything that’s about me, involving extreme emotion; be it anger or happiness, love or hate or anything else: I instinctively tamp it down. I first learnt to do that with Marj’s death. Some emotions tear at the fabric of your being: they’re just too big. Constantly having to keep them from breaching, because I didn’t know how to cope with them. I didn’t know if I could survive them. Instead, I learnt to bottle large emotions because they or their associated comedown lead to seemingly endless dark down days.
The thing about bottles is that they are just a store and don’t solve anything in the long term. I have had to go back and learn to feel at that level again; unearthing and uncorking all manner of repressed memories and emotions. It has been hard and exhausting, and there are still a few bottles I’m not quite ready to uncork, but I’ve learnt to surf big emotions and not instinctively try to hold them back for too long.
There will be dark days in your future. You don’t need to afraid about that, you just need to be prepared.
I haven’t had a really dark day since I first started writing about my depression at the end of 2017.
I have had some low points. I was at a grey-level of 3 on my joy-grey scale when:
- I fell-out with Grenfell’s Kids on the Green (KotG) Chief Exec in 2018
- Boris Johnson won the UK 2019 General election
- just over halfway through UK lockdown 1
but I’ve not stayed on 3 or hit a crisis-level-grey of 2 or 1 yet: not so far.
Do I worry that I will end up there again? Given the many thousands of days I, hopefully, still have left to live, there are likely some that will be the darkest of grey. There are 2 things that I remind myself when I occasionally worry about this:
- I am strong. I survived previous onslaughts and built back
- In the past, I was seriously underpowered – I didn’t have a toolkit: I didn’t really know beyond a base-level instinct how to look after my mental health. Now I do.
My defences were back-loaded, only properly kicking-in after much damage had already been inflicted. Now, I have multiple layers defending my physical and mental health. None are unbreachable, but now I recognise early warnings signs to take extra steps when needed.
Depression is deeply personal. I’ve written that:
it is my toughest foe with access to every past dark thought I’ve ever had lounging around waiting to welcome every future destructive idea I never expected to entertain.
For decades, my unknowing primary method to deal with it was to be always active. Keeping myself stupidly busy with work and an overactive social life. When not working silly hours, I would pack in drinks with friends, and when they were ready for home, move onto a different set until they flagged and then I would go clubbing. Sleeping little, staying ahead.
When I didn’t keep myself busy, anxiety would set in, unwelcome thoughts would come calling, and I would try not to succumb.
Like me, you may have made it this far in your life by just relying on yourself, but it doesn’t mean that you have to keep living like that. I have lots of F&F that I could have turned to, but I had never learned how.
Should they have known that things were not good when they were not? No, those who have lived with depression long enough are masters of deceit, at least, where that is concerned. Outwardly, we show little of the inner turmoil, slothing-off how-are-you inquiries with “ok”, “all right”, or “I’m fine”. I don’t know if it’s unique to me, but I am very good at turning any conversation centered on me around to focus on other people. Mostly, that is because I’m empathic and find other people and their lives endlessly interesting. However, I think it is also, perhaps, because I am searching in their lives and stories for the answers to make mine better.
Perhaps, you choose not to rely on people in your life because others have let you down in the past?
Do yourself a favour and do the math: the set of people who have let you down is likely far less than the rest of those that you know: so learn to lean on people and to live a life less singular. Let others be there for you.
During this time of Coronavirus, I have sometimes wished that I had socially-bubbled. There are friends that I didn’t ask as I already knew they were seeing other family members. There were others whom I didn’t want to be a burden to and was scared of being rejected by.
I won’t pretend, I still find it challenging to reach out, to ask for help. If I call or message twice within a day or two, it likely means I need to talk. Maybe it’s about something in particular or, perhaps, I need a distraction and just talking will be enough to lift my spirits for that day.
I still have a tendency to retreat into myself: learned behaviour with years of practice behind it is very difficult to correct. But I’m still trying, and that’s a good thing.
Don’t be passive-aggressive
I am averse to passive-aggressiveness, and I try to gently move F&F who practice it knowingly or otherwise from doing so.
However, I am, occasionally, the worst type of passive-aggressive: the totally silent kind. It’s when you are pissed at somebody, but you don’t tell them so. You just silently seethe in judgement, amazed that they are failing to pick up your telepathic frowning and stink eye.
It’s ok to passionately disagree with someone, but is your anger at them a misunderstanding or have they unknowingly touched something raw within you? Is your grudge warranted? Might you be better off reaching out and talking – telling them how what they said or wrote or did made you feel?
How did things work out for me?
In coming out about depression, there was a marked difference between what I thought I wanted vs what I needed as opposed to what I got.
I had lots of initial positive feedback on my first blog on depression, and that was good in that it quelled my fear that my life would be worse if people knew.
It later became apparent who had actually read the whole blog. Granted it was a 30-minute read, but as with a magazine or book, you can read it over more than 1 sitting. Maybe it wasn’t a good enough read. That would sting, but I’m more disappointed that certain F&F didn’t feel I mattered enough for them to set aside that time.
The big change has been not having to hide from my depression nor needing to hide it from F&F. And though sometimes I still have grey days, I don’t live in constant low-level sludge. I find and have more joy in life than I once might have thought possible. Is that enough? I don’t know. There are certain things that I would like to have but do I need them? No, for now, I am content.
Actually, there is one thing I do want; and that is to decrease the possible distance I may have introduced between myself and certain F&F.
Having found a comfortable place and path, I have one recurring worry. In tearing down my wall and revealing all, have I created distance between myself and friends and family who have their own still-hidden battles with depression or other mental health issues?
Have I made it difficult for them to talk about their experiences because it might open their flood gates?
Possibly, but I can only own my depression; I cannot own yours. But, if you are amongst my F&F and you want to talk about depression, mental health or anything else, I am here for you whenever you are ready. I’d be honoured to be that person for you.
I may not always be willing to talk about my depression, it is not ground that needs to be regularly up-ended and tilled. However, I am here if you need a friendly ear. I’ve got you.
I know there are some F&F who feel guilty about how much time has passed without comment. Stop it, it is never too late; you may think too much time has passed, but you are wrong: we are not limited by time or distance.
Not a perfect outcome
Since I came out about my depression, nearly everyone has been supportive in one way or another. However, there is one person who was less so – which stings because I valued her friendship a lot.
To be fair to X, I did blindside her with an admission that I had loved her for years. It was a clear my cache of personal secrets thing. I have found that there is a remarkable freedom in not having to be secretive about yourself.
I wasn’t expecting anything, which I did make very clear. I believed it was an unsaid thing, already known; but X decided she wanted to end our friendship.
It was one of those gone-South things that I hadn’t planned for. I was surprised to find this didn’t hurt as much as I thought it might. It stung, a lot – still does, but it’s not a gut-wrenching pain. It didn’t knock me too far back or spiral me downwards.
I’m not happy with that outcome, but I am glad for the honesty. I think she was wrong, but it was her decision to make and doesn’t sour any of the fond memories that I have of her; it’s just a shame there won’t be new ones made.
A summary so, you don’t have to dig back through…
- You do not need to validate your condition against anyone else’s troubles or woes. Stop doing that.
- Choose: live in ignorance and fear or take control and try to have more joy than not.
- The road to accepting and dealing with your condition may take awhile – be kind to yourself & try to keep moving forward.
- Stop suppressing your feelings – find a way to vent.
- Decide on your change and get started. Do not delay. Do not dither. Get on with it.
- Have a plan, a toolkit and some targets. The plan is the path you want to pursue. The toolkit will help to keep you on track. The targets ought to be the things that you want to happen.
- Set expectations for yourself and whoever you choose to help you in your journey – be explicit about your needs, don’t rely on telepathy.
- You may have to expend extra effort in re-educating F&F in what you now need. Do it; they are worth the investment.
- Disengage from anything that is dragging you down, weakening you, or stopping you from moving forward.
- Get ready to deal with emotions that you may have bottled up.
- Do not be afraid of future dark days. There is always another wave – don’t live in fear, just be aware and prepared.
- Learn to lean on people and to live a life less singular.
- Being passive-aggressive is a monumental waste of time. Don’t dabble in it.
Earlier, I wrote
“I felt guilty for being weak and not being stronger because I didn’t have Covid19 and nor was I having to worry or care for anyone who did”.
I wish that were still true, but it is not. Coronavirus struck my family – taking my much-loved Uncle Pat. It also threatened to do the same with his wife, my Aunt Ethel and infected my Mum and various other Uncles, Aunts and cousins. Everyone is recovering or recovered. I really hate this fucking virus! Be careful and implore those you love to be careful too. Act like you and everyone you don’t live or bubble with is an asymptomatic carrier. Wash your Hands. Wear a Face mask. Make Space – keep a safe distance. Get vaccinated.
- If we are family or friends who hug, don’t be surprised if, when we can again, I hold you tighter and longer than usual. I’m making up for the lost time and imprinting a good and lasting memory.
- I used to think of my depression and mental health as the same thing – 2 sides: same coin. My mental health was all about my depression. Now, though not wholly separate – no longer 1 coin: instead 2 interlinked rings.
- Your story is not yet fully written. You have taken or are taking positive steps to be the narrator of your life rather than just being buffeted by circumstances. Keep going forward, stick to the mission: have more joy than not; every day you can. Thrive.
Interested in reading more like this?
Depression: Just Another Day – My battle with depression
Your Mental Health Toolkit – Have you got a mental health toolkit? If not, get yourself one because you should nourish and develop your mental health to ensure it is ever-ready for whatever is coming your way
Created: 2nd January 2020, Published: 14th February 2021
© JAK 2021
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