Tag: mental health

Depression – a ‘clip show’ piece

— This article is taken from my Medium blog. I’ve amalgamated a number of quotes about mental health and depression from Medium writers and, because of the way Medium formats things, you’ll probably have a better time reading it over there. —

I’ve been thinking a lot about my mental health recently. I mean, I’m always thinking about my mental health, but these last few weeks in particular I’ve been very reflective and, as I’m want to do when I’m in a reflective mood, I turn to the written word. For a long while last night, I read through all the things that I’ve highlighted on Medium.

I read a lot of blogs, and on Medium, when something particularly resonates with me at that point in time, I highlight it. As I was reading through my highlights, I realised a) that there were a lot of them, but that meant that b) there are a lot of people out there who — at least sometimes — think the way that I sometimes think.

Every once in a while, we all need a reminder that, with 7 billion people on the planet, a few of your interpretations of the world are going to be shared by others. So, in that spirit, I wanted to share some of the most poignant things I’ve read here.

(I know people can view things I’ve highlighted. For a while though I’ve felt the itch to write something, but have lacked the words — this seemed like a good compromise.)

It was difficult deciding what quotes I would put — the most striking quotes were often the most difficult to read and, despite the content, I didn’t want this to be an ‘overbearing’ post. Rather, if you’re going through a darker patch, a reminder that you’re probably not as alone as your psyche makes you think. In any case, full credit — and a great deal of thanks — goes to every single person I’ve quoted, and a great many more that I haven’t.


On the logic of depression

It’s a terrible thing to KNOW something is false in your head but still believing it anyway. — Unseen Perfidy

Full article: Dealing with Bipolar Disorder

I will still always work towards bettering my own understanding of my depression and how I can fight it, but I will always accept it as part of me. — Monica Bickley

Full article: I’ve Accepted Depression into My Identity

That is what no one tells you about madness: It is always ruthlessly logical. — Benjamin Schulz

Full article: Song of the Other Mind

‘Plenty of people have lived through much worse,’ I kept telling myself, ‘if they can be fine, then I should be fine.’ — Charly Jaffe

Full article: The Gifts of Devestation


On how it makes you feel

It is a slippery slope, depression and crap mental health, and it doesn’t take a hell of a lot to just say ‘oh sod it’, and slip, slide, away. — Kate Stone Matheson

From: A response to Mental Health: It’s not all in your head

When you’re burned out, you’re operating at a fraction of your capacity. Things that used to come easily are suddenly almost impossible. This does bad things to your self-image. It makes you feel weak. And it makes you feel ashamed of that weakness. “I should be able to do this!” you say. “I should be able to power through.” — Jamis Buck

Full article: To Smile Again

For me, depression has always been characterised by a lack of feeling, but I feel so much. — Sarah Victoria

Full article: I’m Supposed To Be…

I attempted to subdue those fears by working a lot. A lot. There were nights when I would ride my bike home at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m., only to open my laptop again and continue working after I got home. I spent time over weekends logged in making sure our help desk was empty or in the office trying to finish the project I hoped would make me feel secure there. I would kill my alarm and open my email with one swift motion each morning. I still couldn’t really explain what I was doing. — Sarah Jane Coffey

Full article: It’s not you, it’s the startup life

It’s a guilt I still carry with me. The feeling that somehow I let her down by not opening up. — Chae Strathie

Full article: Black Dog/Black Hole

The word pain comes from the Latin poena meaning punishment or penalty, and that’s exactly what it felt like. — Abby Norman

Full article: Teach Me How To Feel

For me, depression is caused by, and results in, a lack of productivity. When I’m low, I procrastinate over all kinds of jobs from the most basic domestic tasks to the really important stuff including things I love doing. It’s a vicious cycle where the less I do, the worse I feel and the worse I feel, the less I do. — Pete Smith

Full article: How I’m Handling My Depression (Using an App)


On the darkest of thoughts

I now know. My depression and suicidal tendencies will likely not go away, ever. They are always there, just waiting. It takes only a split second to feel that sinking feeling all over again. — Winnie Lim

Full article: On being chronically depressed and suicidal

I have never wanted to kill myself, nor have I made plans to that effect. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t wanted to die though, which I view as a totally different side of the same coin. — Sarah Victoria

Full article: Dying

I wanted people to know that the type of people who attempt suicide haven’t necessarily been parented poorly… These people are humans. They’re humans that go through shit every day. Just like you. Just like me. — Eden Rohatensky

Full article: I attempted suicide a year ago. My life is not a tragedy.

You cannot imagine what it takes to feign normalcy, to show up to work, to make a doctors appointment, to pay bills, to walk your dog, to return library books on time, to keep enough toilet paper on hand, when you are exerting most of your capacity on trying not to kill yourself. — Mayonnaise

Full article: Depression is Humiliating

Maybe it’s worth allowing the water to flood in. The thought is completely rational. Trading a few moments of pain for an eternity without it. You’ll never again have to look up at your friends beckoning you to swim to them. Never feel like you’re holding them back as they wait for you to resurface. — Paul Barach

Full article: Depression in Metaphors


On the ways we hide…

So we become editors of ourselves, preservationists of our suffering. We become architects of our masks; we reframe our true stories in work and in life. We become vague on the level of a CIA operative. We’re just going through a tough time. We use phrases like a rough patch, a temporary setback, and a minor blip. But we’re fine, really. — Felicia C. Sullivan

Full article: The Masks We Wear, The Lies We Tell, The Secrets We Keep

Which means that if you met me or talked to me for a few minutes, you wouldn’t know. And sometimes it feels like a secret. A secret that I’m ashamed to be carrying around with me. Because as hard as we’re working to break down the stigma surrounding mental illness, it still exists. And as much as we’re talking about depression and finding out that all different kinds of people are struggling, it still seems like there’s a certain way I’m supposed to appear. — Charlie Scaturro

Full article: “How Could You Be Depressed?”

The problem with faking it is that you miss out on the opportunity to be helped and to help others. Maybe you’re struggling financially and the person you’re chatting with has a job at her company that would be perfect for you, but since she thinks you’re “crushing it” the topic will never come up. Maybe the person you are talking to is going through the same thing, and if they just knew they had a friend in it, they wouldn’t feel so alone. — Maren Kate

Full article: Silicon Valley Has a Vulnerability Problem

Le “Salut ça va?” n’est pas une question qui demande à savoir la vérité. — Dora Moutot

Rough translation: “Hey, how’s it going?” is not a question asking for the truth.

Full article: SUICIDAIRE PASSIVE #Depressionista

I don’t reach out because I don’t assume anyone I know is equipped to handle someone like me. I don’t want anyone I care for to have to deal with someone like me. Someone with a brain full of lead and self-destruction and lots of darkness. Someone whose brain tells them they should die. So I stay inside the wretched tension alone. I get through it alone. — elle reid

Full article: From The Front Seat Of Depression


…and on speaking out

Silence is the enemy, the oppressor, the killer, but how do we break its spell? As a veteran in this (depression, I mean), one problem I keep running into is getting lost in translation. Finding the courage to speak is hard enough, but even if you wanted to give voice to the gremlins of the mind, you might not know how to, or if you’d be understood at all. Language would very likely fail you. Language would obfuscate expression and obstruct connection. It would stuff depression into a nebulous catchall for anything and everything from mere blues and boredom to severe mental disorder, but it would leave out the real thing, the inexplicable, inexorable pain, the constant, fortuitous, textured, unfathomable dread that defies both lay parlance and doctor speak. — Elitsa Dermendzhiyska

Full article: Startup depression: The demons we are (still) not talking about

This is a social contract we have all struck. And it’s one that we cosign, again and again, in every instance when we possibly could (because we won’t get fired from work or because we have to opportunity to tell a trusted person how we are actually doing) admit to not being ok, but say that we are ok. It’s something that I am guilty of and I am working on and in part, I wanted to invite you to work on it with me. I want to be able to say “you know what? Not great. But we don’t have to talk about it right now,” the next time I am not ok and someone asks how I am. — Hanna Brooks Olsen

Full article: It’s Ok to Not Be Ok


Some final thoughts

I love language, and the power of the written word. It continually amazes me how the combination of a mere 26 letters and some dots and lines can, in the right hands, invoke such profound imagery.

There aren’t that many subjects that illicit a lot of “I don’t know”s from me (I’m quite the know-it-all). Mental health though, is one of them. It’s a big and complicated thing, and more often than not I feel like I’m grasping for the right words to describe how I feel at any given moment.

So it comforts me, in a weird way, to know that — however I’m feeling, and whether or not I have the words to describe that — someone out there can so eloquently express what I’m going through. Often, it’s not even about having the words to make things better, or to pick me up. The solace comes from the fact that these thoughts and emotions aren’t so big that they can’t be described. These feelings might be bigger, deeper, more complex than I can articulate. But they aren’t so unfathomable that someone, somewhere, isn’t up to the challenge. Someone out there can put my thoughts — our thoughts — into words.

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The falls after the highs

A few days ago, my business partners and I had our official launch event for our startup. It’s a business that runs hackathons bringing together students, corporates, and other organisations to solve social issues. The attendees work on a business, project, app, or campaign for 24–36 hours, and then pitch their idea to a panel of judges at the end. It went very well, and the three of us are over the moon with how it went.

This is not a blog about that.

I’ll probably write one, but for now there’s something that’s been bothering me for a few days.

You see, while I am incredibly proud of what the three of us have achieved (to say nothing of the work our event attendees achieved over the two days), almost the second that I announced the winning team — in other words, the ‘official’ end of the event — I felt empty.

I should be over the moon. Why am I not?

The above quote is actually something I wrote in a personal blog around 10 years ago. In that week, I had been awarded a black belt in a martial art I’d been practising for years, and had also completed a 55 mile challenge trek across Dartmoor in under 32 hours — something for which I’d been training for months. Each was incredibly important to me, and to have achieved them both in the space of a few days was incredible. Yet I distinctly remember waking up the next morning feeling decidedly less euphoric than I assumed I would.

I’m not sure why that line sticks out in my head, verbatim, after so long. But I was forcibly reminded of it over the last few days. Don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled – I really really am. The event went well and – more importantly – the feedback we got from everyone involved was overwhelmingly positive. I’m proud of that weekend as a result of the hard work than went into it, and neither am I saying that I’ve constantly felt empty since the event ended — not at all.

But thinking about the event and the work we did isn’t providing me with the gut-bursting pride that I expected, and the feeling of deflation I felt wasn’t simply a decompression after an intense few days (and the preceding weeks). It was much deeper than that.

Pressure to succeed vs. Work-life balance

There’s a deeper problem though. In that deflating moment, I realised something. Up until that point, I had no idea how much I had invested into this startup. While I’ve said to people that I’ve put my soul into this business, I didn’t actually realise what that meant until a few days ago. That gut-bursting pride? I didn’t expect it; I needed it.

It worries me. It worries me because I know that my low moods are already on a hair trigger. I’m putting far to much pressure on a startup idea, and I’m struggling with the idea that my mental state is tied so closely to it. I felt deflated after my last event because that was my life up until that point. Once it had ended, how could I not feel empty? It’s why people have hobbies, other pursuits, friends, relationships, whatever. It’s things to make sure that when your situation changes in one part of your life, you still have other things that are stable and grounding. In my case, how I felt a few days ago was so much worse than how I felt 10 years ago, because I had other things going on at the time.

Catch-22

But I have a finite amount of time and energy, and putting my all into something that I believe in, in a perverse sort of way, makes sense. I know that it’s a stupid position to hold; I know that I’m custom-building my own environment for a monumental burnout-breakdown.

Yet at the same time, I don’t know how else to function. The irony is that there’s a part of me that’s scared about taking my eye off the ball — even if only for a little bit, for the longer term benefit of my health (and by proxy the business). Success and that feeling of a job well done is a drug — one that I need larger and larger doses of to maintain my normal function.

The same logical analysis that convinces my that my depression is an inextricable part of me, is the same thought process that goes into deciding that I probably should be working harder than I do. I exist in a sort of Schrodinger’s cat-style situation where at all times I know that I need to work harder, and I also know that I need to take my foot off the accelerator a little. The two are mutually exclusive, and both can’t be true. I know that.

It’s just that I also know they both are.

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Mental Health: it’s not all in your head

No one with any common sense (and certainly no one who’s been following this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week) can deny that mental health is any less important than physical health. I’ve now said it more times than I’ve talked about owning a Chromebook, and I only ‘came out’ a few weeks ago (and I really like my Chromebook). It is very easy though, especially with the dialogue being so ‘mental health vs physical health’, to forget that it’s not just that one is as important as the other; the two are inexorably linked.

I remembered that the hard way recently. I’ve been viciously unwell over the weekend and for much of this week. It started off with your general ‘blergh’ symptoms, before I progressed into a full-blown bedridden vomiting mess come Monday morning. Took me most of the week to recover. While I did go and seek the advice of a medical professional, to be honest I didn’t really need to. I knew exactly what was wrong with me.

You see, mental illness is a real bastard. Occasionally it’s not enough for it to screw around with the inside of your head. Sometimes it’s gets bored, and decides to see how much power it has over your body as well.

I’ve been stressed for a while. It wasn’t a big deal – everyone’s stressed; it’s 2016, we basically measure success with how little sleep we get and how big our problems are (rant for how messed up that is, for another time). But what started out as some minor stressing a few weeks ago built up over time, with things adding on. Last weekend wasn’t necessarily more stressful than any other, but it did have stress, and it was another straw on the proverbial camel’s back.

What started out as a combination of insomnia, bad eating, lack of ‘good’ physical activity (i.e. exercise) and abundance of ‘bad’ physical activity (i.e. rushing around all over the place), the aforementioned stress,  and coming off my anti-depressants (more on that in a moment), essentially lead to the perfect storm of ‘well screw this’ from my body.

What’s your point, Will?

I’m not gunning for sympathy points because I was ill. In fact, you’d be right in thinking that it’s not really that big a deal. Get some good sleep, keep yourself fed and hydrated, don’t work too hard, and basically just relax for a few days whilst your body repairs itself. Easy.

That is where it gets interesting. You see, for a rational, functioning human being, it is that simple. Yet I am spectacularly bad at all of those things. I’m incapable of lying in bed doing nothing and relaxing – not because I need to constantly be active (that is so not the case), but because part of the source of my stress is the level of work involved in running a startup. As an entire third of the capacity of the business, the thought of lying in bed doing nothing for an indeterminate amount of time is harrowing.

So I compromise – I sit in bed and try to do work. But it’s terrible work. I’ve spent an entire week writing two documents, and it’s some of the worst work I’ve ever done. Luckily though, that realisation was enough to convince me to take a break and get some proper rest.

Ha, just kidding. It made the whole thing worse. The worse my work got, the harder I took it, the worse my mood got, the more I forced myself to work, the worse my work got, the harder I took it, the worse my mood got… ad nauseum. Literally.

Pouring fuel on the fire

One thing that I imagine has exacerbated this whole thing is that I’m no longer taking medication for my condition. I mentioned that a few posts ago. What I didn’t mention was that I neglected to tell anyone that I was stopping. And ‘anyone’, in this case, also includes my doctor. I have my reasons for stopping – none of them good enough to justify doing it off the radar. 

PSA: Not consulting your doctor before coming off prescription drugs (especially, but not limited to, high doses of anti-depressants), is categorically and completely a stupid idea. Don’t ever do it.

So yeah, that’s my ‘do as I say, not as I do’ piece. I bring it up because only because it’s another example of how linked mental and physical health are. Despite the fact that I stopped taking my meds a while ago, the affects can stick with you for a bit – until they don’t. The reason that you’re supposed to be weaned off them is because the whole point of the drugs is to correct a chemical imbalance, and by abruptly shutting that down, you’re effectively throwing yourself into that imbalance again head first. 

It’s not like your body doesn’t warn you of this by the way; for weeks now, I’ve been blindly pushing through and ignoring all of the red flags (volatile mood, appetite, and energy levels, to name three), convincing myself that that I was fine. All those horror stories you hear about people abandoning their medication and then losing it? That didn’t apply to me. I had all that on lockdown.

Needless to say, I was wrong. Despite my conviction that the medication wasn’t doing anything for me, one thing that I am forced to admit now is that they were doing at least a part of their job. The rides between the ‘downs’ and the ‘normals’ were a lot smoother on the meds than off. Without them, the transitions are a lot more sudden, and a lot rougher.

I digress. All this is by way of saying that I think I should have crashed a lot sooner. I think the only thing that stopped me was sheer stubbornness. I couldn’t be ill – there’s too much to do, I don’t have time for poor health. So I ignored it and pushed on. I’m fairly certain of two things:

  1. I can’t be the only person who does this – and something I want to explore in a later post is why that is the case (that was the original aim of this post, but I took a detour and, 1000 words later, have only just got back on track, so I’ll spare you all for now).
  2. The irony is that, had I taken my foot off the accelerator earlier on, I could have dramatically decreased the severity of the crash (hey, that metaphor turned out pretty good…). I mentioned above that this was a ‘perfect storm’ of things to have caused me to fall ill. Reducing or eliminating just one of those could have had  a marked effect.

Final thoughts

Even by my standards, this post seems largely self-indulgent – and that’s part of the reason I’ve procrastinated on posting it for so long (I wrote a first draft of this on Tuesday, but I’ve waited until the last day of Mental Health Awareness Week to actually post it). It did seem appropriate though to highlight the point that, for all our remembering to take care of our minds, our bodies (and the relationship between the two) are just as important.

I’ve always known that mental health and physical health are linked – and this isn’t the first time my depression has made me physically ill. This is the first time that illness has been quite so severe though, and it has made me think.

I guess I just wanted to share those thoughts.

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Mental health and me: two weeks later

Two weeks ago, I opened up about my struggles with mental health and depression. I never really imagined the responses I’d get from my last post. I did want it out there, and I did want it to be the start of a conversation, but – and it seems wildly remiss of me, now I think about it – I never actually thought ahead as to what that conversation would look like. I had vague notions that maybe a handful of people would like the post, but I wasn’t really prepared for how much traction it got.

As a result, when the messages came in, I didn’t really have a handle on how to respond to that. Nearly a year of training myself to not engage in conversations about my own well-being (on top of nearly a decade of trying to hide that anything was wrong in the first place) left me woefully unprepared.

I’m still trying to word a ‘proper’ follow up piece, but in the meantime, I thought I’d share a couple of the things that particularly stuck me.

The post resonated with a lot of people

This, I think, was the most surprising thing. Within about half a day of me sharing the post on Facebook, it had more hits than the rest of my blog posts put together. And that number just kept going up. It wasn’t just the number of people who liked the post, but how broad that range of people was. Old friends from school, uni, various old jobs, people I’d barely spoken to in years.

mhandmestats

The Google Analytics stats for my blog. Take a guess when I last posted…

I know, logically, that mental health is something that affects everyone – just as physical health affects all of us. But seeing the number of people who connected with what I said really brought that point home. I was also contacted by a number of people who had shared the post with their own networks, and that had started conversations entirely separate to the ones I was a party to. That was incredibly humbling to hear, and also a testament to the power of conversation.

People, instinctively or otherwise, know more than they think they do

I got a lot of advice from people over the last few weeks – things that they had done when they were feeling low, or things that they knew other friends did. I also had a couple of people right off the bat say to me that what they have found useful, when other friends have told them they suffer from mental health issues, was some kind of guidance on ways that they can help – things to say/do/ignore/focus on/whatever to make life that little bit easier. I am working on a post to that nature (it might take a little while – for a number of reasons I’m finding it trickier to articulate than I’d like), but to be honest, what this experience has told me is that people kind of instinctively know what to do anyway.

The obvious caveat is that neither I, nor (to my knowledge) the people who I’ve spoken to, are capable of giving actual professional advice, and that point is an important one. That said, we are all human beings, and that does afford us an inherent level of credibility to talk generally about feelings. There is a marked difference between feeling sad and being depressed, but that doesn’t mean that someone who ‘only’ has the first can’t relate to the second.

I’m still working out how much I’m willing and able to talk in terms of very personal thoughts, but what opening up in a general sense has reminded me is how freeing it is to have certain parts of yourself known.

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

— James Baldwin

Being open about a mental health issue doesn’t have to change anything

“It’s been a weird couple of weeks. Absolutely everything has changed… and absolutely nothing.”
— Me, to several people this past fortnight

Before I made the decision to post my last blog, I spent weeks worrying about the potential ramifications of doing so. In tandem with actually posting it, I also pinned the link to my twitter feed, and started being much more active on the platform. This, in itself, was also a daunting prospect – especially last week, where I was at a conference and spend a lot of time on social media, interacting with others.

There were two aspects to opening up that worried me – the first was the reaction of people I know well, and the second was the initial impression that I would make on others who came to know me through my online presence.

Now, I say that I worried, but looking back I’m not entirely sure what it was that I thought would happen. In the case of my ‘in real life’ friends, maybe I thought that hanging out in a group would be awkward in some way? That during lulls in conversation people would stare nervously at me in case I did something ‘mental’? Or maybe people would talk animatedly about me if I left the group about, only to awkwardly clam up when I returned. I don’t really know… (Sidebar: that I might have been worried these things would happen is in no way a reflection on my friends, rather on my mild paranoia on the subject.) In the event, beyond some incredibly thoughtful private messages and conversations (for all of which, I am thankful), and from one friend a gift of camomile tea, everything carried on almost exactly as it had done.

camomile

Retrospectively, I’m even more confused as to how I thought my online image would change. Despite how hilarious I can be on social media, for reasons unknown I haven’t yet risen to celebrity status. As a result, it wasn’t as if I had particularly far to fall should ‘the worst’ (whatever that might be) have happened. Instead, I’ve since become more comfortable online – for example, sharing posts about mental health that I find interesting – and as a result I’ve actually had more interactions with people. I realise now that what was stopping me doing that was some weird fear that people would find out ‘my secret’ because I was posting articles about mental health and depression. When you think about it, this is odd; no one in the history of the internet has ever worried that people might think they are secretly a cat, just because they curate a Tumblr account featuring GIFs of feline pianists.

And that’s the thing. We all, I think, live inside our own heads quite a bit. I know I do it a lot. Yes, people knowing about my depression has changed things, but not everything – and it has certainly not negatively affected anything that matters. One thing it has changed, and is definitely a good thing, is that I’ve been put in touch with a number of other people all wanting to talk more, more publicly, about mental health. I’ve had some great conversations with people, and have more to come, about ways to facilitate that dialogue. It’s a little daunting, but incredibly exciting.

My thoughts (such as they are) to those thinking of opening up

I’ve already talked to a number of people who also suffer from mental health issues, and who have asked my opinion on whether they should be more open. For me, so far, this has been a positive experience. But I am very conscious that this is one person’s account of a specific set of events. As I mentioned earlier, I am still struggling with what I am comfortable talking about, and what I am not. I certainly can’t speak for anyone else, and I have had very negative experiences of opening up before. I don’t wish to darken the mood, but I do feel compelled to say that.

That said, I do stand by the fact that we all need to talk more about mental health. For my part, I will continue to explore and write about the subject, and what I say will certainly be influenced by my own personal journey. That doesn’t, however, mean that I will necessarily be revealing all the details of my personal life.

My decision to talk more is based on the fact that I believe the conversation needs to happen. Ultimately, that is what I would say to anyone thinking of joining in. To paraphrase something I said to a friend a little while ago: the wider message is what’s important, and however you think you can serve that best is what you should do. There is no shame in terms of how much, or how little, you are willing to talk about personal experiences, so long as you are doing what you can to add to the conversation.

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Mental health and me

Fair warning: at about 4,000 words, this is by far and away the longest blog post I have ever written (and probably will ever write). It’s poor form, artistically speaking, but it is not something that I wanted to break into separate posts. This is a ‘rip the bandaid’ off kind of thing. Please forgive the lack of brevity – if you make it to the end, I hope you’ll understand. 

I was never going to do this. I made a promise to myself a little under a year ago that I would never talk to anyone about my mental health again. It would be easier, cleaner, safer. Distance protects – both myself and others.

I was never going to write this. 

So why, then, is it here? Why are you reading this?

Well, first I guess it makes sense to explain what ‘this’ is. I have a mental health problem. I suffer from a condition called ‘Persistent Depressive Disorder’, sometimes known as ‘Chronic Major Depressive Disorder’. I was ‘officially’ diagnosed about 3 years ago, though I had been having feelings that you would associate with MDD since my late teens. 

For the most part, you probably wouldn’t notice it. I tend to drop off the radar now and again, and sometimes I drink a little too much at social events. But these are usually attributed to constantly being on the move, and having a generically poor but not necessarily sinister relationship with alcohol, respectively. One of the things having a mental health disorder makes you very good at – at least in my case – is perfecting the art of the veneer.


Why hide it in the first place?

The main reason, simply, is the fear of backlash, ridicule, and general defamation of character that such a revelation might illicit. I’m talking about reactions like this:

“To be diagnosed as depressed is the holy grail of illnesses for many. The ultimate passport to self obsession. Get a grip people.”

— Katie Hopkins

Now, obviously, I couldn’t give a tiny rat’s ass about the bile that spews from that vile woman’s mouth. The problem though, is that her view is not an isolated one. As long as people with this mindset (regardless of how far down the scale they are) still have the scope to give this sort of viewpoint air time, there is still a danger that revealing yourself will cause you problems. As someone working in the start up world, you bet your ass I’ve been sat on this post for nearly a month, worried that the knowledge that a co-founder of a company is anything less than perfect might scare people away from business with us.

This isn’t just a hypothetical concern. Up until now, only a handful of people know about my mental health problems. For the most part, everyone has been 100% awesome about it. But there has been more than one instance where telling someone has ended badly, in some cases for reasons that would never have occurred to me. As human beings, we seem to be hard-wired to remember only the bad things, and being shaken as badly as that sticks with you.

There is a third reason; I’m not entirely sure that disclosing my mental health problems is even fair. I could write an entire separate blog post on my thoughts around this. The abridged version, though, is that I hate the idea that I would be a burden on people – that people might have to go out of their way to change the way they act towards me, because I’m more fragile than I let on.


Why am I talking now?

So, the question again. If I promised myself to never talk about this, why have I decided to put it on the Internet – a medium that is infamously permanent in nature.

The honest answer is, I’m not 100% sure. I wrote this as a form of catharsis during a particularly low point. Usually that works – I write it out, file it away, and get some form of solace. Sometimes, if I need more, I’ll stick it on an obscure blog in some far corner of the internet. Lately though, this hasn’t been working – I sensed that I needed it to be ‘out there’ for me to feel better for it. 

That’s not to say it was an easy decision to make – when you’ve been hiding something like this for almost the entirety of your adult life, none of this feels right. 

I read a lot of blogs by people suffering with mental health problems though, a lot of them I thoroughly recommend. This one is particularly good – and there are others at the end of this post. Anyway, I realised the other day that while the majority of them do help, none of them 100% nail what I’m going through. It took me a while to realise why this was: no one is going through exactly what I’m going through – because no two people can experience the same things in the exact same ways. By that logic, there’s no such thing as the perfect blog post for this, but the more content there is out there, the more people in general might benefit. If my account of my issues helps one other person better articulate a small part of what they are going through, that has to be a good thing. Right…?

Another reason why I’ve decided to break my silence is that it frustrates me how poor the level of dialogue is in general for mental health – and specifically for men’s mental health. This isn’t to say that I have ever helped with this. My attitude to talking about mental health is a little like the NIMBY attitude to nuclear power or to wind-farms – sure, they seem like a good idea in general, so long as it is Not In My Back Yard. Wider discourse in the media and online and whatever PSHE lessons in schools are called these days, sure. But I’ve always been nervous about talking about it from a personal point of view.

xkcd-everyoneworries

Source: xkcd – Pastime

In short, I’m a hypocrite. Actually it’s worse than that – I’m a coward. I think all of these things, yet I still don’t want to be the one to do them. I refuse to talk properly to my doctor, seek a therapist, or approach any of my friends about how I feel. I know all the steps I need to take — all the steps I would tell anyone else in my position to take — to get me to a better place. I just refuse to do them. I hide behind a social media presence that flits between conferences, geeky tweets, and rants to companies that piss me off, rather than using it as a platform to speak about something important that – actually – is a subject on which I have a lot of things to say.

Which leads me to the final reason (or at least the final reason in this list). Opening up about my mental health may well give me more scope to write about my experiences in this blog. How mental health is looked upon in the startup world is something that fascinates me. I’m not saying that I’ll suddenly be spewing out thought pieces that Harvard students will use as case studies in important essays. But a guy can dream, right?

“I am a writer perhaps because I am not a talker.”

— Gwendolyn Brooks


So, what does the black dog look like for me?

I mentioned at the top that I read a lot of blogs on this subject. One of the things that I sometimes find quite encouraging is when people describe how their depression manifests itself in them. It gives me something to connect with. Given that, I thought it might make sense to try that myself.

The first thing to understand about depression – and indeed this is true of any ailment – is that it presents itself in different ways in different people. Often, it will even present itself in different ways in the same person. 

There are a number of ways to describe how I react, and I wasn’t sure how best to frame it. I’ve decided to just talk through some of the most common and/or severe reactions to what I call my ‘down phases’ – periods of time where I feel particularly low. Some of these you might notice in a person, and others you might not.

Unsociability

In my case, perhaps my most common reaction to low points is to withdraw into myself. There are currently only two people who can get me to talk when I feel like that – and that’s only because I work with them, and it’s very poor form to go radio silent from one’s business partners when you’re running a three-man start up. But if you’ve ever added me to a group chat and I don’t pipe up, chances are it’s because I’m going through one of my ‘phases’ and I’m having one of several reactions. For instance, I might be feeling intimidated by the group and convinced that I have little of value to add. Sometimes, responding to a social call is too much effort, and simply pretending I don’t exist is the easiest (if not the most mature) way of dealing with that. Sometimes, and I swear I’m not making this up, I genuinely think that you’ve added me to the group by mistake (perhaps we’re all in the same social circle, and Facebook suggested you add me to the group and you clicked yes without really putting much though into to it but, has you thought about it, you actually would have unchecked my name).

I’m fully aware that ignoring a group chat might make me come across as arrogant, uncaring, or a mix of the two. That’s never my intention. It’s just that it is – somewhat paradoxically – easier for me to deal with that stigma than it is to go through the draining process that is social interaction during a phase of major depression.

It goes without saying that, not every time I respond to a message late, I’ve just climbed out of the dark pit. Sometimes, I am just really bad at replying to things.

Wicked insomnia

My most common ‘non-public’ reaction is long periods of sleeplessness. The cause of this can range from simply not feeling tired, to restlessness caused by anxiety, right the way through to full-blown nightmares keeping me awake.

I’ll talk about how I cope with down-phases in a minute, but when it comes to my insomnia, there’s very little that works. I’ve tried meditation, strict sleep schedules, I even keep a potted lavender plant on my bedside table. Some remedies work better than others, but when it gets really bad I just have to sit it out. I imagine prescription sleeping pills would work, but my condition prohibits my GP from prescribing them – lest I wind up as another statistic.

Even in good phases, my sleep is pretty screwed. The bright side is that I’ve managed to start a business that means being awake at 3am is beneficial to the events I run. The downside is literally all of the other things associated with insomnia.

braininsomnia

Source: The Awkward Yeti – Impending Doom

Guilt complex

Guilt, feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem – for me, they all pretty much merge into one. Really, with this ‘symptom’ there’s not any way I can win. It could be that I’ve not had a particularly productive week, or maybe I’ve offended someone, or perhaps my actions have caused a series of events that have ended badly.

The thing about these is that it’s more or less irrelevant whether or not any of these things actually happen. I can’t count the number of times I’ve felt bad about a situation and spent hours worrying about it, only to be met with surprise that I’d even thought anything was wrong if I bring it up. The flipside, of course, is that there have been just as many situations where this hasn’t been the case. One tends, as we know, to focus on the bad.

Things don’t even have to have happened to bring this on. Often, it’s the thought or imagined outcome of a situation that can leave me with sometimes crippling anxiety. As I mentioned earlier, this post, for instance, has caused me to worry a lot about the affect it will have on people who read it, vis-à-vis their interactions with me. This is entirely separate from my worry about how people will view me as a person. The best way I can explain it is by giving the scenario where someone has issue with something I’ve done. I wouldn’t want that person to hold back on their criticism of me because of the perceived (or actual) fragility my condition causes.

The thing is, I’m fully aware of how ridiculous that sounds. Yet the amount of decisions I’ve taken, based on nothing beyond the desire to mitigate the harm I cause to others, is frankly concerning. Guilt – whether caused by past actions, or by potential future actions – is a powerful thing.

Thoughts that are… darker…

I’m not going to talk here about me, not yet, and maybe not ever. But as this is a post about depression written by a man, I feel compelled to add the reminder that such thoughts can lead to the most common cause of death for men aged between 20 and 49 in England and Wales. 

I also wanted to make the point that, for some, this is a constant state of mind. No matter what therapies they are going through, or medication they are taking, or actions they are engaging in, sometimes just waking up in the morning is the most challenging thing that they will ever do.

I mention this to counteract the fact that I’ve cited the disgusting harpy that is Katie Hopkins in this post, and her inexcusable fuckwittery on the subject.


How do I cope with it?

I wasn’t sure whether to write this section, mostly because 80% of the time the simple answer is “not well”. There’s also a large part of me that really resents reading articles with title such as “11 of the best ways to beat the blues”, or “Feeling depressed? These 6 foolproof methods will perk you right up. You won’t believe number 4!“. Whatever well-meaning place they come from, they almost always over-simplify the condition, and are universally naïve about the supposed healing powers of camomile tea.

That said, there are a handful of things that I do fall back on, so it seemed fair to share them.

Build something new

One that I stumbled on almost by accident a long time ago was the act of creating something. I guess the idea is that I feed off of the notion that something exists in the world because I exist. I used to bake, but my down phases usually occur alongside bouts of vicious insomnia (see above), and clattering round the kitchen at 3am isn’t particular considerate towards people I live with. Coding, on the other hand, one can do in ones own time without bothering anyone. The vast majority of my coding prowess (yea, I said it) comes from trying to salvage some kind of productivity from many a sleepless night. 

Otherwise add value

One doesn’t have to build something new to make one’s dent in the universe. For instance, I have mentored for a lot of the same reasons. Someone said to me once that it was amusing that they could rely on my God-complex (their words, not mine. Honest.) to ensure that they could call me in for a training session at short notice. I laughed (because it was funny), but actually that’s only half the story. It’s not a God-complex that means I’m at the end of the phone at 2am, it’s a desperate need to prove my worth to a cause I care about.

Be outdoors

Some studies have posited a link between anxiety and depression, and use of creams containing SPF (eg. sun creams, some moisturisers). The theory goes that, as well as blocking the harmful UV radiation, it also inhibits the body’s ability to absorb all the lovely Vitamin D that the sun is so generously throwing at us. Vitamin D, in turn, is a key ingredient in making monoamines, such as serotonin, which are the body’s natural anti-depressants.

The science is somewhat disputed, but I can vouch for a lack of sunshine correlating with poor moods.  My point is that being outside is something that I find helpful. The caveat to this is that actually there are a lot of things required to get a depressed individual outside – especially if they wake up and decide that bed is their domain for the day. With that in mind, I have a list of things under the ‘be active’ umbrella that also help (and yes, I am aware that this is inadvertently turning into one of the articles that I – not moments ago – lambasted).

  • Shower and change into clean clothes
  • Do some housework – tidy your room (which, if you’ve spent days holed up in, will be a mess. Not sure how it’s possible to make a room messy when you haven’t really left the confines of your duvet, maybe it’s a superpower we depressed folk have acquired), clean the dishes, take the vacuum cleaner for a spin, whatever.
  • Have a banana. Seriously. In fact, if you’re up to it and you have the ingredients, make a smoothie. Two reasons: blitzing loads of things is oddly satisfying, and bananas have all the brain-friendly chemicals.

If you can make it outside, the next step that many self-help sites will tell you is to do some exercise. Sure, endorphins are great, but my struggling to get out of bed doesn’t morph into me wanting to become Mo Farah just because I changed clothes and ate some fruit. Good news is that even a walk helps.

depressionshower

Source: Depression Comix – Trapped

Medication

I have something of a checkered past with anti-depressants, but it seemed remiss of me not to include them here. I’ve been on half a dozen prescriptions over the last few years, from SSRIs such as Prozac to NaSSAs such as Mirtazapine. By and large, I’ve hated them all. That said, I have recently come off medication, and that has coincided with a somewhat-severe decrease in my mood. I wouldn’t like to say that one caused the other – but it is interesting to me that maybe the medication was doing more than I gave it credit for.

In either case, regardless of my personal journey with meds, I don’t have time for people who dismiss them as a valid form of treatment. VICE ran this article a while ago that articulates this better than I ever could.

Camomile tea

Yea, I know what I said. Shut up…


So… now what?

People are a mix of things – a kaleidoscope of hobbies and quirks and opinions and skills. No one person is seen the same way by two other people, and no one sees themselves as the same person in front of different people. That said, I do think that most people have a ‘default’ way of looking at themselves – kind of like the real-life version of your headline on LinkedIn.

For me, that headline is my diagnosis. It’s what I immediately return to whenever I self-reflect, and it is the lens through which the majority of my actions are taken. My condition causes my ‘default’ view of myself to be a negative one: I detract from social situations, I leech off of other people, I don’t add any value to scenarios – and in fact in most cases, I detract from it. 

For the majority of the time I interact with people, I try to keep a lid on it. I do so for any number of reasons ranging on a scale from ‘actually I’m not too bad today’ through to ‘no one should have to deal with this level of crazy’. In the process of trying to write this post though, I’ve had to really think about my condition, and articulate it in a way that is coherent within the medium. The problem is that people are far more complex than that. I’ve not begun to scratch the surface of how my condition has shaped me as a person, I’ve skimmed over things that deserve more attention, and I’ve probably given certain things a narrative importance that they don’t necessarily deserve. 

I have no idea how I’m going to react to this being in the public domain. Firstly, because it presupposes that people will actually read this. But also because I’ve spent nearly a decade deliberately trying to make sure that ‘real-world Will’ and ‘depressed Will’ are entirely separate entities, never the twain to meet.

I’m not sure it can go on though. Not because I have a burning desire to talk to everyone about my mental health – I really, really don’t. But the subject is far more important than one person’s view on it. We’re retrospectively told – all the time – that whatever social issues we face are always solved given enough time. But time isn’t the solution. It takes action to make change, whether that’s a change in discourse about mental health, or in something else entirely. 

I’m not arrogant enough to suggest that my ramblings here – only some of which were entirely coherent – will play any significant part in that change. But if just a few of those words make someone think differently about their situation – just as countless other people have made me reconsider mine – then that has to be better.

Doesn’t it?

xckd-positiveattitude

Source: xkcd – Positive Attitude


Postscript: Some things I’ve read

In no particular order, here are some of articles and blog posts that have particularly resonated with me in some way or another. For anyone looking for other things to read, as you’ll probably notice, I highly recommend Medium as a good way to get in front of content.

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