Follow Jessica

Friday, 28 August 2015

A Day in the Life MH Part Four: A Day in My Little Life

It’s Wednesday 26th August and this is the last of the four days I’m participating in A Day in the life MH. I’m still ill, struggling with persistent low mood over the last three weeks more intensively than I have in the last year, which doesn’t make any sense to me because it’s summer and surely I should be happy in the summer? The sun is shining (well, some of the time), the trees are green (the grass is yellow, despite the fact it keeps pissing it down) and I have September to look forward to, one of my favourite times of the year, when I can wear winter colours again. It reminds me of new shoes, shiny and smelling strongly of leather from their box when I put them on for the first time, the scent bursting out of the tissue paper and up my nose as a symbol of going ‘back to school’. It's good to imagine that actually, to know that I can feel things outside of the numbness, even though rarely.

You can read my other posts here:

I've been struggling to write because of being ill, but I really wanted to contribute to the last part of the Day in the Life Project, so here is my entry. My short term memory is completely shot to pieces at present. My short term memory is completely shot to pieces at present. But I wanted to finish this, and since I took the day off and filled it with not much, here it is, my fourth and last entry for this project. It feels good to finish something even though it feels like I'm not up to much right now. 

Done! It feels good to have completed this project. Completing things can be hard when I'm ill.

Today I took the day off from work because things are quiet and I thought since I had holiday left that it might be useful to rest.

I am always trying to get the balance right between resting and being active, because on the one hand, if I do too much (work, socialising ,running, running around doing errands, tidying, cleaning (yes, I actually clean sometimes) then I risk making myself so stressed and exhausted that I feel overwhelmed and the next day, and the next, and the next start to feel harder and tiny little tasks impossible. 

To promote my activity, I went for a run first thing, just under six miles, to try to take advantage of the time to do a long run in the week without having to get up at 5:00am to do it. I washed and changed and put on lovely crisp clean clothes, then went out to the shop to post a card and buy a sandwich. But when I got back to the house and through the front door, I was too exhausted at the thought of picking up the single envelope on the mat to reach down and get it, so I left it there. This wasn’t the six mile run. It was the depression. I’d got through two, three maybe, hours of activity, and after that I was done for the day.

The day before I had given a talk at work as part of a new programme being piloted to help people understand what resilience means and how they can support others. I knew I’d be fine to give the talk, and I was. 

At the end, though, I was struggling a bit to hold back my emotions and from crying and when I left work later that day I was reminded of my own sadness about the life I’ve had and its downs. I was sinking again. Even though people said that it was good, that it was brave, I was still sinking, weighted down by the anchor of all my memories. 

And I was still swimming upwards, but I was caught in the whirls underwater and couldn’t move much in either direction, away from the harmful, hateful thoughts or towards the good.

I stayed in bed for most of the rest of my day off. I read “ALittle Life” by Hanya Yanagihara. This is one of the saddest (if not actually the absolute saddest) books I have ever read. One of those books that takes my breath from me, winds me almost, and when I look up from the page the world takes a couple of moments to come back to me, so lost was I in the world the author had created. I probably shouldn’t have continued reading it.

It resonated with me when the main character says, “I feel like all I do is disappoint you, and I’m sorry for that, I’m sorry for all of it. But I’m really trying. I’m doing the best I can. I’m sorry if it’s not good enough.” I’m talking to myself here. “Why then does he insist on revisiting and replaying events that happened so long ago? Why can he not simply take pleasure in his present?” Why do I? Why can’t I?

All I did for the rest of the day was read the book. It was relaxing and it was saddening. In fact at the end of the day I had allowed myself to be drawn into the world so deeply that I was picking myself apart for all of the failures I could find in myself. I cried over my inability to get better and all the things in my past that had made me what I still consider often to be ‘defective’ and weak and broken and a failure. I rationally know I’m not but sometimes rationality doesn’t win. I wish I could end this Day in the Life process saying that it does, always, but for me riding the waves of depression mean a lot flotsam and jetsam when I expect it and when I don’t. So to bed. And hoping for a better day tomorrow.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

I Got That Summertime, Summertime Sadness: Fragments of Two Weeks of Severe Depression

This blog post is a fragmentary group of paragraphs that don't hang together. That's because I'm not 
hanging together very well. I could use a number of similes or metaphors to describe it.

Oh my God, I feel it in the air, telephone wires above, are sizzling...

I am a bag of marbles (I haven't lost them) that are clacking against each other noisily and awkwardly and painfully. I am a collection of smiles and tears and laughter and sleeping and wakefulness. I am lost. I am feeling nothing. I am feeling too much. I still am...but what I am I cannot say...

Here are some fragments. This is what I wrote last week, and below that what I wrote before.

Last week - Friday 14th August, 6:38 pm

This week was one of the worst that I've had over the last two years - nearly two years since I have been back in the UK and supposedly back to normality. It makes me sad to write that sentence, knowing that just over a year ago I came out of hospital and was filled with being rested, re-educated about the things I can do to support myself, and understanding what my 'rights' were as an individual, even if I couldn't define them for myself, and found it impossible to say what I needed at any level.

This week my husband went back to work and we gave up our enjoyable daily routine of working in our two different bedrooms/studies and 'not talking' but 'being' together in our one dwelling. I still work from home quite a bit, but have to try and find a balance between being in the office to feel connected to my colleagues and like I have a place in the world outside, and being at home so I don't have to see anyone, to feel disconnected from the world outside.

While I'm at home I stay with all of the usual trappings that entails: running (maybe, if I can get up and make myself do it), juicing, (on a good day, and if I hadn't broken my juicer like I did yesterday), making a list for the day (so that I can compartmentalise the tasks into small, manageable chunks and prevent myself from feeling overwhelmed by the entire picture by tackling one thing at a time) and then working through that list and postponing decisions on anything else until I reach the end of the day so that I can ensure that I reach the end of the day and then can do whatever I need to to feel safe, protected, and free from worry.

This week I couldn't cope. One of the things that I am most susceptible to with depression is the fact that I have developed over my entire life an inability to cope with separation from others. My subconscious (i.e. the bit of me that makes the decisions about how I'll feel about anything, which the rational me doesn't get a say in) smashes the alarm glass and sets off the sirens when I'm left alone by people who are a supportive presence in my life. Whether for this or for other reasons, I crashed back into full scale depressive symptoms:

  • Waking up at 4 am without a hope of getting back to sleep because the 'On' button in my brain is stuck down permanently
  • Loss of interest in doing anything other than making it through the day, in a haze of numbness where I can't feel anything
  • Loss of appetite, so that even the nicest freshly-baked chocolate chip cookie might as well be cardboard going into my mouth
  • Short term memory: I'm writing absolutely everything down because I can't remember what I'm saying. I frequently lose my thread mid sentence and can't get to the end of it without having to be reminded what I was saying in the first place.
  • Low frustration tolerance. I cried in anger when I couldn't get the zip done up on one of my dresses. I was enraged when I dropped a plastic food box on the floor which meant I had to clean it. I felt inexplicably irritated when I realised we had run out of loo roll. 

And, for the last one, I cried and cried and cried about the fact that I was back down the rabbit hole of depression, with the medication and therapies that have been helping me to recover feeling like worthless placebos (which rationally I know they're not) and I cried because I was still alive feeling like this and there might never be an end to it.

Thursday 20th August, 4:27pm.

I suppose I’m still alive, but …ugh what cost? At the cost of feeling absolutely crap most of the time at the moment. I hate to say that but the next thirty years don’t feel so great. Is there really any point?

I went to hospital last week and confessed I spent at least four days out of seven wanting to be dead. They worried about me and offered admission, which I didn't want, advised me to take extra sedatives, which I felt wasn't that helpful- feeling like "Let's keep her alive by making her even more numb to the world outside". That's not living in my book.

Yes, there is a point, I know, rationally, that it must be so. But I am still all of the above, numb, frustrated, short tempered, sick of it all. I might be useful at work and get through each day with projects on track and employees supported, but I come home or leave work and I feel empty. I have nothing much left for the evening except to feed myself and then sleep. I can manage to eat (although I don’t have an appetite). I can manage to talk a little with Mat (though I lose track of what I’m saying and don’t feel I have a good grip on what’s going on in the world or that I have anything interesting to say). I can perhaps write a few tweets, respond to a couple of texts, and try to stay connected to the outside world.

Unraveling and trying to keep it together at the same time

Saturday 2nd August, 07:28am

I'm up and ready in my running gear for the park run. I've carried on doing what I can through this - I've kept going to work (from home a few days and in the office some days). This is to combine the need to hide my tear-stained face from the world at times and my need to get out there and show myself to jog myself a little back into the norms of the day and try and feel something other than nothing as I do it. I've kept running every day, and although I cried (again. So much crying these last two weeks) in anger because I managed to fall on a rainy morning and injure my elbow again, as well as develop impressive bruises all over and not be able to run the 5 miles I was planning, I didn't actually break it x-ray confirmed) so I can go and do the park run this morning. 

I've put my makeup on and met friends a couple of times, which was a struggle but probably did me a lot of good. And I have rested with books, with my beloved Netflix, and eaten sandwiches at 5pm to close the day, heading to bed to read at 6 and shutting out the world so I can draw that day to a close and rest before the next one. 

And I have done other things: I've recorded another interview for the BBC, written an article for Metro online (watch this space for that) and applied to go on Campaign Bootcamp, in spite of not being accepted last time. 

I'm recognising that my depression makes me a #spoonie and I need to select what to do and not to do when I'm really poorly. Unfortunately my social life usually is the first to go as I want to make it through work as a semblance of a normal existence. It's my choice though, and I choose how to allocate whatever energy or mixture of numbness and feeling comes to me on any of those days.

So, yes, I am alive, and I'm carrying on. I have seen from Twitter that a lot of my Twitter friends with mental illness are also having a really bad time. I'm hoping the summertime sadness will pass. As always I recognise how lucky I am to have supportive family and friends around me, and medical professionals who want to help me get better, not get (even more) lost. I hope I can write a more together post for next week. But I'll just settle for what I can manage today for now.

Friday, 7 August 2015

We Can Work It Out...Or can we? Talking About my Mental Health at Work

Stephen Fry, Patron of Time to Change and mental health advocate

In June, when Stephen Fry appeared on Desert Island discs (which, if you haven’t heard of it, is a fantastic way to glimpse the biographies of the world’s good and great through their reflections on life and 8 discs they would choose to accompany them if they happened to be cast away on a desert island). He talked about the impact of his mental health on his life. He also talked about his decision to be open about his condition, recognising (to paraphrase) that he is never free of thinking of his mental health or others’ through his decision to be open about it. 

I sympathise with this perspective, because I would very much like to be free of my own mental illness and to go through life with a normal amount of woe, (whatever a normal amount is) balanced against a reasonable ability to cope with whatever life may drag, toss, push, cajole or offer into my path.
This is the kind of conversation I can so easily have with myself, again and again.

At the moment, however, I am still handling poor mental health every day, and I am more than happy to speak about it in the hope that it will help me to accept myself as I am, rather than embracing all the defective qualities I find it so easy to discover in myself. More than this, I hope that my decision to be open will help other people at work be more open about their illnesses, and I especially hope that it will help managers, leaders and HR professionals (the people whose job it is to support us at work) to see that depression and anxiety do not exclude a person from being able to make a valuable contribution to the working world.

I “came out” at work last year after realising that to go on hiding a condition that left me at times debilitated and unable to get out of bed from my employers only fostered my own strong sense that I was actually a failure, hopeless, useless and no good for anything or anyone. I set myself extremely high standards, nurtured since my earliest memories, for everything that I do, and when I considered the risk that, in coming out with my depression, I might find visible proof that others saw me as “less than”, “weak”, “to be avoided”, I only wanted to crawl further beneath the duvet, to barricade the windows with blackout blinds seven fold and never to come out again, rather than to take that risk.

It's not actually wallowing. It's drowning.

I had had bad experiences at work previously when struggling with my depression, which you can read about earlier in my blog and also in the piece I contributed to Buzzfeed this week about my precarious route along the tangled wiry cables of a life spiked with barbs of depression towards being honest about it to myself and others. It was when I experienced bullying from people outside of my company which left me so destroyed that I did not want to live, that I finally got help in hospital. And it was during recovery and return to work that I realised that I would only protect those bullies and harm myself if I didn’t try to put across my point of view, and show that I was still Jessica, depression, anxiety, and all.

Sometimes I feel this way; mostly I have to work not to hide it, 
as well as deciding whether I have the energy to smile

I have heard many negative stories from people who have been terribly treated by someone from their employer when they have tried to express their needs for support because of their mental illness. It enrages me when I imagine the huge step a person has to take to ask for help because of a (still very much stigmatised) mental illness. I am ashamed for the human race that people wilfully (at times) harm people with mental illness when they refuse support or (at best) to ignore requests for help. 

Despite the funny message intended, being a boss 
who doesn't support colleagues and staff's health needs  is not acceptable.
An atmosphere at work where there is too little support is toxic and unproductive

What makes it worse is that when I am struggling with depression the last thing I want to do, instinctively, is to draw attention to it publicly, because my self-loathing and acute awareness of everything weak and bad in myself is so heightened that I am seething with the physical sensations that this brings, and feel sure that others must be able to see that I am totally worthless. To be refused support only perpetuates this notion. To be told to “pull yourself together” makes me fall farther apart.
It's easy to believe this when you are struggling with depression.
It's so easy that I can believe everyone else will have the same low opinion of me
that I can have of myself

So what would I suggest to those people? Not everyone will have a positive experience when speaking about their mental health at work…but if you are ill you need to take whatever steps are needed to try to get well, whether that is medication, therapy, time off work, adjusted working hours, adjustments to the way that you work. You should be able to get these. 
I believe that everyone has the right to support at work, with illness
and that everyone has the right to work without fear of discrimination

I understand that you might not want to speak up or ask for help, naming your need as a mental illness, because you feel the weight of your own self-hatred holding you back, and you are afraid that you’ll be met with stigma, be shamed, be devalued, perhaps even lose your job.

I can only say, you are not wrong to ask for help. You deserve help. You are worth it, even if you have never felt more worthless. You can seek help from Remploy (in the UK) and other mental health work information sites which provide information for you on your rights and give helpful advice on how to speak to your employers about your needs. (And, on the Remploy site, there is also a downloadable advice leaflet for employers, so if you’re reading this and wondering how better to support your staff, please take a look at this, and use the Mind website and helpline for further information.)

Remploy and other sites can help to reassure us that we do have rights,
and can (and should) expect support for our needs
(Mind's legal line can also advise on what to do, you can reach them on 0300 466 6463) 

In my experience, I continue to have to “come out” throughout my working life, because my job means that I’m frequently working with different teams of people who don’t know me or the fact that I have health reasons for needing adjustments to the way that I work. I try to do this in a fairly ‘light’ way, because I have work to do, firstly, and if we have a thirty minute conversation about my depression and medication, that’s not something I’m going to be able to put on my status update to my manager as a positive outcome. (Although, I can put it in this blog and feel a little bit glad that I continued to be honest when it was hard!) I want to be seen as the sum of my parts, and depression is still just one part of who I am, the pink and purple hair-streaked business woman who likes to write, sing, paint, eat good food and drink good wine, buy far too many pairs of shoes, run in the park and watch endless films and TV shows on Netflix, and read good literature and totally crap novels.

The crucial point: I am not denying that my mental illness is part of who I am.

I am who I am...depression, pink hair and all

Towards the end of that episode of Desert Island Discs, presenter Kirsty Young asked Stephen Fry, “You’ve more than hinted earlier that much of the torment you’ve gone through is why you are the person you are. If you had the choice to live without your bipolar condition, what choice would you make?”
“Interesting" he answered. "I wouldn’t want anyone to underestimate the seriousness of a condition like that it can shorten lives, sometimes traumatically and terribly. It can have a terrible effect on families and people around you, but it’s so hard to separate it from oneself. W. H. Auden perhaps put it best. He said, “Don’t get rid of my devils because my angels will go too.””

I am still trying to be well, and on and on it goes. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow perhaps my depression will go. I am so lucky that I have had the chance to learn that, whatever I may think of myself in my darkest times, my illness is real and worthy of treatment, care and respect. And because not everyone has that experience (not even me, all the time, from everyone) I am going to carry on talking about it. Here, and on Twitter @volette and on Facebook, and face to face. I hope you might be able to join me one day.