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Saturday, 28 March 2015

You're Not Alone...with Depression...Keep Fighting

In response to the many news articles on the recent tragedy of the Germanwings plane crash I considered writing something today about my views on the way that press coverage of this awful event has set back progress towards developing better understanding of depression.

However, I find that in this New Statesman article, Stephanie Boland (@stephanieboland) says what I want to say, and picks out the same nuanced stigmatising language from (for one) the Daily Mail's coverage of the crash. I would like to recommend that everyone read this article for an analysis of journalistic styles, and how inappropriate these are at times.(In case you're wondering, I was actually incredulous at the massively inappropriate and misleading use of the word 'Incredibly' in the Mail's article, like Boland, and I also took great exception to the word 'heinous' being used to describe what appears to be a completely fictionalised version of a statement of ambition that the co-pilot Andreas Lubitz made to his then girlfriend, a few years ago.

What really stands out for me from reading all the press coverage of how lonely it is to be depressed. I feel this especially when people make assumptions about what you can and cannot do based on your diagnosis of 'depression' without understanding more about how each person's symptoms manifest themselves and how severe they suffer, how often they present with symptoms, how this affects their life etc.

I have felt like this. But there's more to it...

I only started talking openly about having depression last year because of behaviour from others that I - rightly or wrongly - have perceived to be negative perceptions of me. I experienced various occurences where I felt there was a question as to my ability to perform work in a quality way, to be able to continue to function at a normal or above normal level, linked specifically to the fact that I was in therapy or that I had previously suffered with depression or was suffering from a low episode where my depression was worse than normal.

Spiralling negative thought focus is one of my worst symptoms,
worsened when I shame myself again and again for every wrong I've ever committed

I found that when I was ill with depression it was particularly exhausting to function because of my self-imposed rule that I must at all costs conceal it. Trying to live each day and say 'I'm fine' when actually I was anything but greatly aggravated my condition: I was not only unwell, but I had shamed myself and felt shamed by others into hiding what I believe to be a condition that many others suffer from, and that is nothing at all to be ashamed about.

What's more, while having depression over the last twenty years, I made it through school (just), got into Oxford university, managed to achieve a 2:1 degree, then was accepted onto the TeachFirst programme and taught hundreds of pupils aged 11-16 at two outer London comprehensive schools over three years. I then left teaching to become a management consultant at one of the largest and competitive firms in the market. I developed sufficient business acumen to be promoted there - twice - and to be accepted as a transfer candidate with sponsored visa to live and work in New York. I moved back and gained my current job with another large and prestigious consultancy firm.

Me, 2005, punting on the Cherwell in Oxford.
I was suffering from depression when this was taken

The year I got into teaching I was still grieving for a dear friend lost a year before, my father had cancer and I suffered from depression as a result. I had also moved to London only a year before and was in a new relationship. All this was made more challenging by the fact that I was working extremely long hours to become a teacher in a learning curve I can only describe as 0-60 in 10 seconds. The children I taught were at times very hard work: most were keen to succeed but reluctant to learn! I had six weeks of training (combining some practical and some theoretical elements in a crash course) and then started on an almost-full teaching timetable.

Most children were very easily distracted and many had all kinds of special educational needs ranging from dyslexia, non-verbal autism, other levels of autism / aspergers, having ADHD (either diagnosed or non-diagnosed), suffering from trauma, coming from abusive homes, coming from foster care, coming from many different other countries and not speaking English. I could go on and on.

Bristol 2006.
I was on medication to treat depression and sleep problems at the time.

It was wonderful and awful in equal measures on many days but even though the stress of that work helped me develop terrible psoriasis all over my head and brought on worse symptoms of depression I still managed to do the job and qualified with the highest possible grade as a teacher, and was awarded a 1(the highest assessment) during our Ofsted inspection when I was teaching year 8 (the WORST year 8 in the school's history) Romeo and Juliet. I spent weekends planning lessons which would (I hoped) engage the individual needs of every child. I produced many new resources and worked with other amazing teachers to try to grow into a teacher who would give the children the success they wanted. The majority were able to improve their English (I taught English) in spades and for GCSE students achieve the Cs or above they were looking for.

While I was in teaching I took medication for depression but rarely took time off.
Most time off was related to bugs caught from germ-sharing at my schools!

After the first 7 weeks I was burnt out to use the familiar expression used by others to describe Andreas Lubitz. I went to the doctor and received antidepressant medication to help me to improve my mood, cope with work (I missed one week of work due to sickness, including but not limited to depression) and get back on track. Things did improve. I got better and life went on. I didn't miss more work for depression (I did get terrible flu and tonsilitis from schools which remain for all who are parents, students and teachers a breeding ground for all manner of lovely germs!).

2010, after running the London 10K. 
I was suffering from depression at the time.

I finally left teaching for management consulting because I wanted to make more of a difference. My ambition at the time was to lead an education charity one day. Now (8 years on) I still want to run a charity, but currently would prefer it to be one linked to mental health services, though I'm still equally passionate about education / children, so perhaps I'll find a way to do both. It would be a highly appropriate statement for me to say, as Lubitz is reported to have done, ‘One day I will do something that will change the whole system, and then all will know my name and remember it.’

Sydney, 2010, at a wedding. 
I was suffering from depression at the time.

Since joining consulting I've worked in 6 different countries in many industries to learn about how business works. I have worked long hours to produce quality work for my employers and my clients, and I've tried to build a CV that shows my passion for people, for technology and my intellectual curiosity.

2011, just after returning from 3 months working in Ghana and Ethiopia.
I was suffering from depression at the time.

 I've also mentored students through the HEAPs scheme, iMentor (in New York), have coached teachers and other professionals and have supported Mind and Time to Change as an advocate for better understanding of mental health and by being a media volunteer. I was in hospital last year with depression but took only a limited amount of time off from work, because I find work (and activity) supported by others, makes me flourish rather than flounder. I hope that my non-profit activities give value to those whom I work with - I certainly enjoy them because I love people and want to do as much as I can to help people out - it makes me happy to do this. 

Cape Cod, summer 2014.
I had just come out of hospital after suffering a severe episode of trauma-related depression

All the while, I have still had depression. I've taken different varieties of medication, I've attended and still attend CBT with a fantastic therapist who helps me try to get through tough times. I still feel like not being alive on quite a few days. I didn't particularly want to wake up on Thursday morning, just gone, for example, because - and I will not lie - depression can feel unrelenting and it is bloody knackering to keep going with your life when you're worn out from all the negative feelings that you wish would just sod off so that working, exercising, eating, seeing people, and just functioning weren't so drainingly difficult.

Sometimes the simplest activities are as hard as any other task imaginable.
They represent how hard 'living' compared to not living can be.

I am now not alone. I have friends from my support groups to hang out with. I have my beloved husband who supports me even though - I feel - it surely must get quite old when your wife greets you at the end of each day in floods of tears and can't make a decision about what she wants for dinner, despite having polished off a high quality bid and managed multiple projects and written a blog post during the day. I have my other friends who send supportive messages and put up with me being flaky when I can't always make appointments if I'm suddenly unwell. I have my family who are loving and kind. I have a lot. And at work - importantly - I have grown in the confidence to say when I'm not well and expect (and demand) that people to treat me without discrimination because I happen to suffer from depression. I speak out here. I speak out wherever I can. I believe I have the right to a life and the right to work, respect (as long as I show it to others) and fair treatment as an individual.

On days like today, when I feel 'okay' - not great, not terrible, I still hold on to my ambitions and think about the future I want to have. And I say, honestly, and with hope, ‘One day I will do something that will change the whole system, and then all will know my name and remember it.’

Just Breathe...Live.

And I really hope that I do - something positive that allows me to be the change I want to see in the world.‘One day I will do something that will change the whole system, and then all will know my name and remember it.’ And, "incredibly", I will do with depression. 

Me 2015, on medication and seeing a Cognitive Behavioural therapist to help with my depression.
Working, writing, coaching, painting. Living.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Mental Illness Does Not Equal #HeadClutcher - Get The Picture?!

As if to prove the point, I even had to have someone else take this picture
because I can't even take a selfie with both my hands in this position!

Today is a great day because the #getthepicture campaign has been launched by Time To Change in association with Mind and other mental health charities. I was blogging away yesterday in a post I will no doubt publish sometime in the future (because it's about anxiety, and I seem to get that quite a lot) but I couldn't feel passionate about writing about my continuing struggles to feel well and, to quote Star Trek to live long and prosper.

It's hard to describe what life is like if you're suffering from a long term mental health condition, because we cannot actually experience life as someone else, however much we try to find similarities in our experiences to join us together. When I was a teacher we used to talk to the children in our English classes about empathy as 'putting yourself in someone else's shoes'. Now, aside from practical and logistical challenges (wrong shoe size, width, or the possibility that they're just f***ing ugly shoes) we cannot experience any kind of illness as another person experiences it and know that we are feeling exactly the same thing - from headaches to heel aches from those darned shoes, we will never know what another's pain feels like, only our own.

Erin's right. There is never an excuse for ugly shoes.

When it comes to illnesses, it's fairly obvious when some people are suffering in a particular way. For example, you may see that someone has a cast on his arm, or a boot on her foot. Or stitches in a prominent position. These are all physical manifestations of a medical condition. It's lucky for the media that these kinds of things exist as their life is very hard. Yes, they have to search through literally one or two image searches to find a perfect picture of someone with a broken leg to write their report on a skiing accident or one of those better accidents where you have it at work and LawyersForFreeExceptWhenWeWinAndFleeceYou.Com come and help you to sue your employers for leaving that big yellow sign saying 'Wet Floor' right where you could trip on it.

"You're going to charge me how much?!"
Appropriate example of a #headclutcher shot

For mental illness it's rather different. (And I shouldn't forget about the hundreds of non-mental-illness conditions that are also invisible.) You can't always see on the outside what someone is feeling on the inside. There are guidelines on how to try to identify when your friends, family or colleagues might be struggling to maintain their mental health you may have seen, some more helpful than others... such as frowning or looking angry, increased frown lines or visible signs of stress, looking sad, tired or being tearful or frustrated easily. (I know, some of these sound a bit ridiculous. It really is all you might have to go on...or nothing at all.)

Bradley Cooper shows us that people with mental health challenges
also sometimes wear bin bags to exercise in. I bet you weren't expecting that!

But that cousin or co-worker could just as easily been dumped recently, seen Still Alice at the movies or stopped using Protect and Perfect anti-wrinkle serum as be depressed. There are no hard and fast, tell all signs that someone is definitely suffering from a mental illness.

"Back off buddy, those wrinkles don't mean a thing."
If you say so Jen. If we looked like you we wouldn't even care about photoshopping.

This makes things tricky for our dear friends in the media, who want everything to be black and white. Is Kim Kardashian's bum too big or not? Well, the answer to that is, both, or one of the two depending on what day it is and how many hits the sidebar of shame is getting on any given day. But they can always accompany this with badly taken pap shots of Ms Kardashian's shapely rear as evidence for their badly written articles peppered with the odd typo and grammatical error in the writer's haste to get Ms K's ass hot off the press, if you know what I mean.

Spot the difference. Yep, it's the addition of *clothes*. you got it in one.

Luckily for the media, Time to Change has come to the rescue. There is no longer any excuse for using pictures of people who are gripping their heads for no apparent reason as representing the mentally ill. You know that cannot be true after all, I mean, I didn't type this post with my nose, that would have taken all day. I typed it with my hands, while feeling moderately anxious because yesterday was one of my 'no sedative' meds nights, and because I'm wondering how much more carrot juice I can drink to keep me from becoming a hippo on my weight-gaining antidepressant pills, and whether actually a Marks and Spencer's chocolate chip cookie is actually calorie free if I eat it standing up. (Course it is.)

Time to Change has launched its campaign and with it a whole host of media images which show people struggling in a more realistic way. They are for the media to use, and are endorsed by the UK Picture Editors' Guild. They worked with people who suffer from these illnesses and medical professionals, among others, to represent mental illness in more sensitive, life-like graphics. I'm guessing none of them will show up in the Sidebar of Shame, but that's only cause KimmyK wasn't available to model for them. The glorious Mr. Fry, though, was, and here he is, showing us all how it's not done. So, media, you're welcome, Time To Change has helped you out. Now #endtheheadclutcher already. And those of you media types who are struggling to keep your mental health in good nick can breathe a sigh of relief, because no one's expecting you to use your toes to type anymore as you clutch your head all day at your desk. See, everybody wins.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Don't Stress, it's only a Fracture...Happy Holi Everyone!

Today is Holi holiday, a festival of colour. Click here (today only, I'm guessing) for the Google doodle which leads in colourful fashion to learning more about what Holi is . In India there are beautiful displays of a love and fun-spirited appreciation of colour. "It brings people together" and anticipates fruitfulness in the seasons to come. Fruitfulness which we in the western world may take to mean either its original and literal meaning, or merely a sense that things are getting better.

Holi Colours ready to wear

Here in London, I mentioned to a friend yesterday how glad I was that the evenings were lighter - that is was no longer already dark long before 5pm - and that it lifted my spirits to see the day lengthening and the nights giving way to warmer spring and summer months. I need daylight and exercise, and the colours the daylight shows me, to feel the beneficial presence of nature in vitamin form within my body and give a natural boost to the antidepressant medication I'm taking. And also I need exercise, which has long been a known natural shot of endorphin-boosting joy to my system.

Battersea Tower and Holi...and the return of blue sky

Unfortunately I'm seeing less of these than usual, because exactly a week ago today I woke up with unexplained pain on the sole of my right foot. Pain which felt like I'd held my foot in the equivalent of a clawed fist all night long and now needed to stretch it out somehow and release all of that tension. I did release it, if you could call it that. I walked to the train and into work and by the time I got there the pain had subsided into a nagging ache and I shook it off, and went on with the day.

This is a slight, slight exaggeration of my attitude...

Two days later, after two more days waking like this, I could hardly walk and the pain was going nowhere. Added to this three different doctors looking at my foot (one at the 'walk in' centre, whose name they still need to change, one at my GP surgery and one at A&E (that's the emergency room in case anyone's wondering)).

Even this little bird would have had a better diagnosis for me. 
And he would have sung it. Win.

None of these doctors could agree on what was wrong. I spent six hours in A&E on Monday and had such a bad time that despite my respect for the NHS I wrote a letter of formal complaint about the way that I was treated (or rather not treated) there.
"I've looked at your X-ray with two other doctors and we can't see a fracture," said my doctor. (In fact he said nothing like this because his English was so poor I couldn't understand whether he was asking me a question or diagnosing me, or ordering a pizza, but I think this was the gist).
"Okay," I countered, "So what is wrong with it?"
A look of amazement crossed the doctor's face. Oh shit. She's right. Now I have to tell her something else. Bollocks. What do I do now?
"I will talk to the SHO Orthopaedics" (It could have been. Let's give the bloke the benefit of the doubt.)
Five minutes later: "It might be fractured so we will give you a boot and you come to fracture clinic in one week."
"So it is fractured or it isn't?"
"We don't know, so come back in a week."
There endeth the diagnosis and prognosis. Great. Thanks for that.

And then there's the humiliation that comes alongside this - another injury to add to the catalogue I've racked up in the last year - is that I am vulnerable and lame from these other injuries, and that as I take another taxi to another hospital appointment, I am already on the verge of tears even before I arrive. I wept through most of these appointments with embarrassing fluidity. Also, from anger that I can't just bear these things and get on; that depression comes back (even if fleetingly) to kick me while I'm down.

Oh the ugliness. there's no Prada here, or Gucci, or Yves Saint Laurent. 
There's just one boot. A boot too many.

I can barely make jokes anymore about my condition. Although, hang on, here's a good one: what do you get if you put a woman with a (now mended) broken back and an un-mended broken elbow to bed? A fractured foot, that's what. Or it might be.

If the TV were the computer, this would be me. 
(Yep, that's right, I'm a disgruntled, pink bunny rabbit.)

As no one at Kingston hospital had a clue, I should be thankful (and I really and truly am) for my private health insurance (they're not going to be that thankful for me, I'm sure!) I have now seen a specialist and am having an MRI this afternoon. All good progress. But how on earth could I have fractured (or stress fractured, if that's what it turns out to be) my foot just by walking and sitting down. Wayne Rooney did it, apparently. The only thing Wayne Rooney and I have in common. Well, apart from the time he and I both slept with women old enough to be our grandmothers. But apart from that time, nothing I can think of. I can't play football. He can't conjugate Latin verbs (Wayne, feel free to correct me if that's wrong) or make banana loaf cake so good it's often eaten in one sitting. Or paint. Etc.

"And Rooney claps as Carmody successfully recites the principle parts of Fero"
 (Ferro, Ferre, Tuli, Latum. See?)

I sat at the hospital weeping over my foot because I was just so pissed off with the whole thing. I was pissed off when the doctor at A&E asked why no one was there with me (because most people work for a living, idiot!) and at the woman sitting in the X-Ray waiting room who asked me "Are you going on holiday?" eyeing my roller suitcase I'd brought just in case I were admitted, despite the fact she was using one of those tartan covered trolleys my Nana used to have TWICE the size of my tiny, sleek, silver roll-aboard. I just said "No," because any other response would have either been exceptionally offensive, or tears again. No win for me either way.

If Kate Moss ever uses one of these, I'll have to shoot myself.

I thought twice about whether to post anything at all about this, so sick I am of all of this. But hey, this is what the week turned out to be. Odd, annoying, bed-ridden. On the plus side I've finished "Travelling to Infinity" by Jane Hawking, and am half way through "Wild" by Cheryl Strayed.

To be recommended...a book about Jane and her life with Stephen. 
Worth remembering it's about her if you see the excellent "The Theory of Everything"

I booked a holiday to Tokyo for April (so, foot, whatever the hell is wrong with you please sort yourself out) and one to Rome for May, evidence that I am sincerely lusting for sunshine, travel, a change of scenery from my still chilly bedroom and the interminable builders outside on the high street. So there is sun ahead. And fruitfulness - in gelato form or whatever.  I'm after colour. I'm after society (I haven't left the house with one exception other than to attend 5 medical appointments this week (so far, the week ain't over yet...) and I'm after something other than this incessance of injury).

Now this is the kind of boot I can get on board with!

And I'm sick of myself for feeling fed up with it all, because I know that really I'm lucky for having modern medicine, private health insurance, a comfortable bed and all mod cons available to me. So I'm going to shut up now and get ready for appointment number 6. I am going to think about painting and colour, holidays, the fact that it's Friday and the weekend is so, so nearly here. And hope that I can be a bit less boring and cheerful going into it. I will wear red lipstick in homage to Holi and a colourful scarf to counter the drear of my high-tech grey boot. So happy Holi everyone, and be careful out there in the colourful world, because high jinks can lead to higher accident rates. Even if you're asleep at the time.

Have a happy and safe Holi - enjoy it out there!