World Mental Health day: black dogs and avoidance

It’s safe to say that I have neglected my blog somewhat of late. The reason for that will, I hope become apparent. That said, it’s World Mental Health Day today, so I felt it appropriate to write something.

For the last 3 months or so, I’ve been experiencing low mood, which has tipped into depression. I say “or so” because it came on gradually, and I really wasn’t sure where anxiety left off and depression began. At first I thought it was just a typical ADHD-type mood swing. I usually just wait for those to go away, but this one didn’t. It just got worse and worse until last week, I was crying every moment that I was alone. I cried on the way to the mental health classes that I help to run, I cried on the way back. I cried at work, for some strange reason every time I walked past the Christmas fabric and ribbon. I hardly ever cry, not even when I’m mightily fed up, so this was really strange.

It’s different for everyone, but depression doesn’t make me feel particularly sad. Instead it just washes all of the colour out of life leaving me flat and indifferent. I just can’t be bothered with anything, even the things that used to get me really excited. And the aches, oh, the aches. Stress puts the body into “fight or flight” as the brain cannot tell the difference between a physical threat, like an oncoming car/angry person that wants to hit you/sabre-toothed tiger, and a psychological one like, erm, struggling to see any hope for the future because, no matter how hard you try, nothing seems to get any easier, and being unable to see a day when, perhaps it will.

Well, that fight or flight response isn’t going to help me much in this situation. So my muscles are getting ready to fight or flee, and there’s nothing to fight or run away from, so I get more and more tense. And exhausted. I wake up, barely able to get out of bed as I feel as though I’ve already done ten rounds and dragging myself through the day just longing for my bed.

It’s not much in the way of fun and games, is depression. But all is not lost. I am, after all, an assistant psychologist, and I’d be a pretty lousy assistant psychologist if I hadn’t learned a thing or two along the way.

For a start, in this particular case, there isn’t actually anything “wrong” with me, in that, the low/depressive mood that I’ve been experiencing is a perfectly normal and appropriate reaction to what has been a very tough few years with very little in the way of let-up. I’ve been steadily losing hope, and to maintain good mental health, all human beings need hope. I’ve simply run out of cope. There is little that I can do to improve the situation that I am not already doing. Despite what that idiot Jeremy Hunt says, I’m doing all I can, and simply working through the night as well as mornings, afternoons, evening and weekends is not going to help matters. So I’m going to stop beating myself up for feeling like this.

The next step is to tackle the avoidance that commonly comes with depression. Avoidance is lovely. For those of you not familiar with the term, it’s when you turn down invitations, or avoid the things that you should do because you don’t believe that you will cope with them. Avoidance makes you feel great, in the short term. You snuggle up under a duvet and watch TV instead of seeing your friends. You feel safe, and comforted. And then you feel regret, because you might have had a good time. Your friends might think you’re boring, you get annoyed with yourself, and self-esteem drops. And your brain has had no opportunity to learn that you will, in fact, deal with the situation just fine. So you avoid again, and again, until your comfort zone becomes very small indeed, and you get more and more isolated.

So I’m not gonna do that. I’ve been saying “yes” to things. Putting in fun stuff into the diary, even if I haven’t really felt like it because, that’s another things human beings need, things to look forward to. Which is not compatible with the notion that it’s ok for people to work like slaves and have no dignity or disposable income at the end of it. (Hear that, you bloody Tory creeps, this is why every psychologist I know hates you.) For a musical version of this notion, listen to the song “Bread and Roses”, and you’ll learn why the rose is a symbol of the Labour movement. Sometimes, if there’s nothing to look forward to, you have to create it yourself.

So I’ve been doing fun stuff, and ok, so the resulting pleasure isn’t what is normally would be, it’s a bit like listening to music with foam earplugs in, but it’s better than nothing. And gradually, I find that I’m crying less, and taking more pleasure in things again.

I’ve also told a couple of people, including one of my colleagues. She saw how sad I was looking and asked if I was ok. I wasn’t going to tell her, but it came spilling out. She simply said that she was sorry I was having such an awful time, and that any time I wanted to get a coffee and have a rant, she’d be there for me. It wasn’t much, but it didn’t need to be. She didn’t try and fix anything, or offer solutions, and knowing that she had my back meant everything.

I’ve been dealing with the muscle aches by making an effort to walk more, take hot baths and getting back rubs from my lovely fiancé. There’s only so much I can do about the stiff muscles when I’m tense all the time,  but at least I know why they are stiff in the first place.

Slowly, I’m starting to feel better. I hope that sooner, rather than later, I’ll be back to my usual self. I wanted to share my experience to let anyone else who experiences the pain of depression know that they can take action, there are things that can be done, and even if the depression doesn’t go away, life can be a lot nicer. I’m not saying it’s easy, it’s like when you first start to learn a musical instrument, everything is difficult and the sound is awful. But if you can keep going until you’ve learned the basics, putting your skills into action becomes a great deal easier.

I’ll leave you with this video that I came across when delivering the Stress Control course, I Had a Black Dog

Happy World Mental Health day!