Guest Blog – Jim (Depression & Photography)

SunriseMy name is Jim and I’m a long-term sufferer of depression, going back to when my Dad died when I was 12 (I’m 53 now, 3 years younger than my Dad was when he died. For a coalminer, he didn’t have too bad an innings). As life has gone on, the depression has ebbed and flowed, but never left. I’ve occasionally been deluded enough to think it had run its course, but it always comes back to haunt me in many varied ways. Sometimes it has obvious and evident causes – relationship breakups, a few severe physical traumas, unemployment and so on, but now and again it’ll catch me unawares.

I’ve had most of the modern antidepressants – I started on the lovely Amitriptiyline, which I now take in a much lower dosage for nerve pain, but they won’t allow me to use it as an antidepressant anymore. I don’t get on with any of the SSRI’s I’ve tried, so I’ll only use them as a very last resort. The last one I tried was Citalopram, which seemed to have less side effects than the rest, but it still increased my anxiety levels to beyond the pale.

Anxiety has been a constant companion for the past 20 or so years, following an unprovoked attack in which I was stabbed and almost killed. I was on diazepam for 5 or 6 years, but came off that cold turkey after hassles with psychiatrists. I’ve also used Beta blockers (propranolol) for lengthy periods of time. They’re fine if you can live without adrenaline.

I’ve undergone various therapies, mostly in vain. 2 equally disastrous attempts at psychoanalysis has left me with a healthy contempt of analysts. Counselling helps, but only up to a point. A course of CBT worked well, but I felt it was a bit too short. I still use tricks I picked up there to help now (but at the end of the day, they are just tricks).

I’ve kind of drifted around from job to job, quite successfully at times. After school I lounged around on the dole for a bit before going to Art College. Prior to Art College, I’d met up with an Art Therapist during a period of hospitalisation, who remains a good friend to this day, and he had kickstarted me into taking my artwork seriously. College was a bit disastrous, really and undid all the good he’d done. When I left I never wanted to paint again. I did gain some experience of photography and darkrooms, though, and a love of photography has remained with me ever since. I never did get the chance to build my own darkroom, but it was always a plan until digital cameras came along.

During student life I did as many others did and worked in bars and restaurants to keep myself solvent and drunk. When I left, I kind of stayed with it, finding a sleazy late night place I liked and taking on the kitchen duties. I was the chef, interior decorator, menu designer, and promoter of a small but select back street dive with a late licence and live music every night of the week. Life did not get much better. When managership was offered, I took it, along with becoming the sole licensee of the premises when the owners moved on to bigger and not necessarily better things around the corner. It wasn’t to last. (see 3rd paragraph, I don’t want to talk about it)

I lost about 5 years or so to Post Traumatic Stress, lived on benefits, became a recluse… that kind of thing. While I’d been running the venue, I’d used my “showbiz” contacts and had a good run as a “performance poet”, doing regular gigs on my nights off from the club, self-publishing a couple of books, recording cassettes and so on. That all stumbled to a drunken halt too, though some friends did get me to record a CD with some funding they procured. I didn’t promote it and it didn’t serve any purpose, really, except as a vanity project.

I met my wife around this time, and when she became pregnant with our first child (we now have 4!) it occurred to me that I should quit my low down lounging ways and get back into the world of work.

What to do though? I’d had enough of restaurant and bar work, but there wasn’t much else I was any good at, so I ended up slaving away in a string of call centres just to bring a wage home at the end of the week. It made me desperately miserable, but I had a potential family to support, so I gritted my teeth and answered those phones as cheerfully and helpfully as I could. As soon as one job got too much, I’d move on. That kind of work was plentiful, once you had your foot in the door, and most places had a high turnover of staff.

Once we had a baby or two in our arms, it became clear to us that city life had lost its attraction, and when a chance came up to drop everything and move to rural Wales, we did just that. I scrabbled around taking any work I could get for a while, while trying to live as simple and uncomplicated a life as possible. I gave up car ownership when my Transit van was leaking oil everywhere and due to fail its MOT. I started to use my bicycle, which I’d always had, as my primary mode of transport. I got a job in a bike shop. I went to work for a cycling charity. I now teach safe cycling and general road safety to children.

I bought one of the first waterproof and shockproof digital compact cameras, and still have it. I took it everywhere with me. It fitted nicely into my pocket, and didn’t fall apart if I fell off my bike or dropped it, or wandered into the sea with it. Having a bicycle and a camera is a magical combination. Driving along and seeing something magnificent is frustrating if you can’t stop to get your camera out. On a bike, you nearly always can. Having a camera gives you an excuse to look at things, and to look at them again, from another angle. It gives you an excuse to lay down on the floor an look closely at a beetle or a flower. It gives you a reason to look outwards from yourself, which is sometimes very difficult if you’re in the grip of a deep depression. A camera is something to go for a walk with. You don’t need another person (though another photographer is always perfect company – they won’t talk you to death or walk too fast!).

Through posting my photos online I’ve met many like-minded people, some have remained online-only friends, some have become firm real life friends, just because we both enjoy taking and posting pictures.

I learned a lot from other bloggers and my own photography took on new dimensions. This wouldn’t have been possible without the interweb and digital cameras. I briefly joined a sketching club many years ago, and I’ve been a member of too many writers’ groups to know that an Amateur Photography Group who meet at the local fishing club headquarters every other Thursday would never have benefitted me in the same way.

I bought a DSLR, thinking it would open new doors, give me more creative control, but it wasn’t the right size, and it didn’t sem to do a great deal more than my compact does, so I let it gather dust for a year or so before passing it on to my wife, on condition that she buy me a new compact. It’s even more shock, water and freeze proof than my old one (which my oldest daughter now has) and will soon, when I’ve got a cradle for it, be heading skywards attached to the string my kite. KAP, or Kite Arial Photography is something I’ve wanted to try since my online friend Joker posted some photos…

I’m deeply depressed at the moment. I broke my wrist in a cycling accident about 3 months ago, and the lack of physical activity coupled with the general trauma and pain of a badly broken bone has sent me into a downward spiral. I love my wife and children more than anything in the world, but home is a bit claustrophobic at the moment, and `I must be a right pain in the arse to live with just now. The dreary wet winter weather doesn’t help, but even when I can’t get out, I can find something around the house which will make an interesting subject. My camera can captivate me like nothing else can, but capturing the image, perhaps tweaking it a bit (I used to be a photoshop obsessive, but beyond a little light cropping I don’t retouch or manipulate at all anymore) is only half the process. It’s not “done” till it’s been posted online.

Last year, my friend’s mother attracted my attention by creating a blog called “Silent Sunday” which consisted of a single photo, taken during that week and posted every Sunday, with no words or title or caption or anything. I started one, but it fell into disuse. I’m resurrecting it this week. It’s here

My camera, it’s window I can look out of, wherever I am.

In search of a superhero?

I’ve been playing with my iPad a bit over Christmas, partly to try and push the winter blues away through being creative and partly to see what apps would be good to use in mental health settings.

I will be writing a more detailed blog about audio apps, I have found some great things but need to look at them more closely before working out how I can use them to make music.

So just a shortish post looking at a couple of little fun art/creative apps I have been playing with. I’ve never been that great at drawing but have always been interested in comics and graphic novels and have had great fun with this –

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Buddy Poke is a 3D avitar maker where you can create a comic version of yourself easily and then pose it for photos, change clothes, make little films. Great fun and I can see it being great to use in workshops. This is myself and how I want to approach 2013, feeling good and upbeat 🙂

The other app I have played with is Comic Life a comic making app that uses templates to easily get a comic built using photos and putting your own words in – here’s my first attempt. Setralineman was an attempt to tell a serious simple story using images I had on my iPad. I think this kind of simple easy to use app shows real promise to work with people to express themselves through art, without having to be scared of drawing etc. you can concentrate on the narrative and what message you want to get over.

Will look forward to getting stuck into it more and making a longer form comic to try and tell more of my story and to find ways for others to do the same.

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I will be writing much more about such things but will say again I am not a professional mental health worker, I am a community based musician and digital artist with mental health problems, so this is very much a personal journey for me, both emotionally and creatively. If you suffer from any mental health issues please go and see a professional, go to your GP, go to MIND or another like minded organisation, all the comments on this blog are about me and are personal observations rather than anything else.

A Safe Space on Pinterest

20130102-201612.jpg I just started a Pinterest page for A Safe Space, a home for interesting links to things I’ve found in my research about mental health, music and technology.

It is as much just a reminder to myself of articles etc I might want to come back to or haven’t got time to read at that moment – you know kind of like a pin board…..oh hang on, slaps forehead……Pinterest…..I get it now…..lol

So there you go, hopefully it will have stuff on it that you might find interesting – any links that you think might interest me let me know 🙂

The argument against pulling one’s socks up

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I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told that all I need to do is pull my socks up, to cheer up, chin up and keep marching, pull myself together, to turn that frown upside down….you get the picture? The thing is there’s a slight problem to this simple solution, I’m not feeling a little blue today, I’ve been suffering from depression and anxiety for years, I’m afraid those socks just won’t pull up as quickly as you want them to.

These kind of things being said to you when you suffer from depression are just not helpful (or any mental health problem. I’m going to talk about my depression here but I think most conditions will have similar objections to those I raise). Do you think I don’t want to get better, do you think I enjoy losing days of my life to waves of self hatred, apathy, confusion, fear, binge eating, social anxiety and the rest. If I could wave a magic wand so those socks were pulled up for the rest of my life and I could live a more stable and regular life (I would say normal here, but the above is a ‘normal’ part of my life) then I would, hey I’d be up for those sock suspenders and everything 🙂

But it doesn’t work that way, I’m sorry to say. More sorry than those with the glib comments will ever realise… To give an indication of just how unhelpful these kind of comments are this is a brief overview of my last 5 months of sock pulling up – this is after a lifetime of living with depression but i’ll just talk about the period since my last bad episode in the summer.

I visited my GP on 8th July after a few months of feeling worse and worse. I was feeling angry and irritable around people, feeling withdrawn and constantly on the verge of tears. My weight had ballooned up to just under 19 stone due to binge eating and drinking too much cider, I was feeling deeply unhappy, very unhealthy and pretty incapable of actually doing much about it. I’d withdrawn so much from friends that I couldn’t really think of the last time I’d really socialised with anyone but my partner – she’d noticed just how withdrawn I’d become. This had all built up since my mam died around 5 years a go, but had also been a constant the rest of my life, just much worse since then.

I was never really suicidal during this time, I had been before but mostly it was not really being too bothered either way. I was just feeling so very low and unhappy, which made me eat and not take care of myself, which fed the cycle. The constant reminders of my weight weren’t that helpful either, just made me worse.

Then one day after a really bad couple of days I just couldn’t bear the thought of carrying on for much longer like this. I was in such a state that I picked the phone up and made an appointment to see my GP.

I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety and was prescribed 50mg of setraline a day, this has increased over the months to 150mg a day, which has been working until the last couple of weeks where I’ve been slipping backwards at a rate of knots….but on the whole it’s been really helping.

I have started taking vitamin supplements – fish oil for omega 3, vitamin B complex and vitamin D, these were all recommended to me by other sufferers as they tend to be deficient in depressive people. I have mainly been looking at changing my mental state through nutrition but I don’t get enough of these things through my diet, and was not likely to. I have done lots of research into nutrition and depression and have slowly changed my diet, mainly been good but get’s hard on the bad days.

I have been on a sensible weight loss and health programme. Mainly this had involved eating less and trying to eat healthier options, cooking from scratch has helped this, the amount of sugar in diet ready meals is amazingly high, so my cooking skills are improving all the time. I have also found cooking generally relaxing and it has been a good way to slow down and unwind. For exercise I have been using an exercise bike that someone gave me. I started slow and have been building up my strength and stamina, I now do 30-45 minutes a day on it, plus have managed to go from barely 1 press up to 10 at a time and 30 sit ups. All this has helped my weight loss – I have now lost 4 and a half stone this year, most of it since the summer, which is great but been really hard work with the sugar cravings and the binge eating never far away. But I’m pretty near my goal weight now and the cycling has been helping the mental health also. I do feel much calmer after a good cycle and I’m hoping to get my mountain bike fixed up for the spring so I can get a little vitamin D at the same time.

The exercise was also part of physio treatment I’ve had for a bad back. Got a series of stretches to do, supposed to be 3-4 times a day but I’ve been struggling to do this when I’ve been busy, do them most mornings though and when my back starts to ache. I start at the community gym in the new year after the referral from my physio but am also hoping it will help my mental health – get 16 weeks free so going to make the most of it.

I have been seeing 2 therapists – one is through MIND in Barrow, I see her every 2-3 weeks and chat about things, what’s good, what’s been bad in my life, looking for connections so I can understand myself better and get a handle on my emotions. I’ve been a service user at MIND for around 12 years now on and off. It has been a safe space for me when I’ve been bad, more so than the NHS which has been very hit and miss for me – depends on what your GP is like I think. I am seeing a wonderful Dr in Dalton who has taken me seriously, let me feel like I’m an equal partner in my recovery, which has often not been the case in the past. She has prescribed the setraline but also referred me to First Steps for CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) I am nearing the end of the 8 sessions I can have through the NHS and have made big strides with my social anxiety especially – I haven’t done a no show for a few months and have tried to chat to people when I’m out, sometimes makes me feel physically sick just saying hello so I have made huge strides with this, somedays I just can’t manage it, that frown refuses to turn upside down, but since I’ve started being more open about my condition I have been able to say to friends if I’m having a bad day rather than scurrying down an alley or crossing the road rather than talk to them!

I have also started to meditate again, plus deep breathing exercises and relaxation audio stuff. This all helps keep me on an even keel, but is very hard to keep up with when I also have to earn a living and be a carer for my disabled partner. Generally been making massive strides though. Well until a couple of weeks ago, I’ve felt like all the hard work has been for nothing at times lately, the sugar consumption has been creeping up, been feeling more on edge whilst out and about, been tearful and having trouble sleeping again, really worry I’ll end up back to where I was. I have managed to keep on top of things, have more bad days than good but still cycling and trying to eat as best I can. I’m hoping it is mainly Christmas blues and I’ll feel better in the new year. I’ve hated this time of year for so long all the stress and pressure it brings (I think another post about this is called for) but it might be just a downward cycle happening. I hope it’s just Christmas…..

I have been doing lot’s of other research about my condition, looking at ways art, specifically music, and technology can be used to help me and other’s

So all in all after nearly 6 months of trying to get over the latest bout of crippling depression I woke up this morning in roughly the same mental state I was in that morning so long a go – well just pull my socks up? No, I will carry on my fight against feeling like this, battling the black dog and remain hopeful I can recover the lost ground again, and no doubt in the future again and again. Hey some of us are just dealt really cheap crappy socks that just won’t stay up however hard or often we pull them up…..

If you think about it like a broken leg (or another painful condition you have experienced) and imagine this is your experience, you try to hide it and carry on working through the pain as your family, some of your friends and people at work will think you’re soft, you might even be discriminated against if they find out, the kind one’s might say you just need to stop thinking about the pain, that it’s mind over matter, that your leg should be fine, just carry on. After a few months they try not to mention it in case you start ‘moaning’ again about the pain. Some of them will start avoiding you as you’re not normal, you stop going to the office football games as it hurts too much and they all laugh at you. But you carry on as best you can, you leg starts to feel better after a few months, you start to think you might get your old life back…..

…..and then you wake up and your leg is back to how it was a few months a go, no reason for it, you just woke up with another break, same pain as before, but you can’t mention it to people, they’ll think you’re milking it. They never did send you any get well cards either! Also you can never fully understand why your leg breaks, you have vague ideas, lack of calcium? Genetic disease? Plain bad luck – the doctor can’t really help, they don’t know enough about it to really help, we’ll just try giving you stuff and see if any of it works, usually takes up to 6 weeks to see though, no guarantees, if it doesn’t work we’ll just try something else. You realise the best you can really hope for is that the leg is better more often than not and you accommodate the breaks into your life and live with it as best you can.

Hope this makes sense to you if you don’t have any idea of what dealing with depression is like. I’ve never met anyone who is happy to have the condition, I think we all would prefer to not be handicapped with our mental health conditions, to not have that constant worry even when we’re happy that it could all just fall to bits again over night. So please don’t tell us to cheer up, to pull our socks up or any such stock phrases, we’re all doing our best and this kind of advice makes us feel worse, that we’re at fault because we can’t snap out of it.

If you really want to help someone with depression, try listening without judging, without offering advice, sometimes we just need support and friendship. Sometimes we just need to have a laugh and some good company. Sometimes we need a good cry, offer your shoulder. Make anyone you know with mental health problems know you are there, but try and get them to seek professional help, when thy’re ready for it. The last thing you need in a vulnerable situation is people trying their latest back street psychology on you.

The thing I’ve found is that yes there’s only me that can make me better, it’s a long journey full of wrong turns, compromises and learning to be gentle on yourself, but you can help your family member, friend or work college to start with by being accepting and give a little slack, talk to them and help them know they’re not alone. If you suffer please see someone about it – there’s many organisations that can help you, I have had good experience of MIND, the NHS, The Samaritans and CALM as well as friends being here for me, both in real life and online.

I’m not trying to become any kind of guru, to tell you what to do with your life, to say I can help cure anyone, this blog is about just sharing my experiences with the world in part as an aid to my own recovery, and to be a resource for my research about mental health and how art and technology can help. It is a long journey, and it does start with the first step, and you might have to keep getting up and taking that first step a number of times, but each time you’ll know yourself a little better, learn another coping strategy – mine is art and music – but also writing, not in a very great artistic or clever way but it’s been massively helpful to me to write, I’ve been keeping a mood diary for the past few months and writing about my dark thoughts has made it easier to cope with them. This blog I guess is a companion to the diary. I’m not going to divulge too much about the ins and outs and the history of my inner demons, just know they’re there and I’m battling as hard as I can to defeat them – I’m not wanting to write a misery memoir but want to put some positive energy out there, to help in my own small way to fight the stigma of mental health issues by being open about my condition, about what has been helpful and what hasn’t.

Feel free to feedback about any of the points raised, again remember I’m not a health professional and can’t help with any treatment – go to your GP, to MIND, talk to friends – but tell me about good resources, music that helps, websites anything like that.

Thanks for taking the time to read this far 🙂

The Comforter – Submarine by Peter Astor

A proposed series of posts about tracks that have helped myself and others through difficult times. A bit like ‘Our Tune’ I guess….So to start the ball rolling…

Submarine by Peter Astor

This always reminds me of when I was really ill with neuralgia and being off work for 7 months, I worked in the shipyard in Barrow, building submarines and living in the flats on Barrow Island with my girlfriend. The neuralgia caused the most astounding pain – I had Right Trigeminal Neuralgia to give it it’s Sunday name – and was often found with my head about 3 inches from the gas fire to try and stop the pain, a bizarre thing but it kind of worked.

The medication (Carbamazepine) I was on didn’t really shift the neuralgia but gave me a list of side effects like loss of balance (as in I would just fall over a lot),  I was liable to burst into tears at any point, drowsiness after taking them, until the pain came back after a short time. It really was a horrible time – having a combination of headache, toothache (all teeth), and the rest of the right side of my face very sore to the touch.

So this song became one I came back to quite a lot in this period – I was unsure of going out much in case I either started being in too much pain, or I’d fall over or burst into tears, the sentiment of the song just fitted my general low mood – I was pretty suicidal for chunks of the time I was ill, but tracks like this always let you know there’s other’s out there, that you are not alone. This may sound cheesy to say but it’s true – I still feel a warm glow when I hear this song and that I eventually recovered, it took quite a while as my depression was triggered as another side effect of the medication.

Full lyrics copyright Peter Astor

I’ve done all that I can do…
I feel like I could sleep for several years.
I’m drinking in these lazy days,
Trying to make the real world disappear.
Reading through the afternoon,
I can lose the ache of what to do.

I stay inside
Where I can dream.
No one can touch me
In my submarine.

Like a river running by my door…
I sit and watch the traffic flow.
I see people traveling,
Going where I don’t have to go.
And I know my money’s all run out,
But that’s something that I can’t think about

I stay inside
Where I can dream.
No one can touch me
In my submarine.

Late at night when I can’t sleep,
I go outside into the yard
And listen to the factories
Humming underneath the stars.
And when the sky turns a dirty red,
That’s the time that I go back to bed.

I stay inside
Where I can dream.
No one can touch me
In my submarine.

If you have a track that is a great comfort to you and would like it to be featured on the blog please contact me at info@shaunblezard.com with a link to the track on youtube etc and a small piece of writing that tells us why you find the track comforting. There’s no payment only the knowledge that you might have helped someone somewhere to find something that might comfort them during a difficult time.

A positive move forward

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Just read this interesting article in The Guardian about mental health patients getting a better deal in the NHS, which is a great positive move forward. Being able to have more of a say in our treatment when suffering from depression etc is such a healthy move. I have had some really bad experiences with the NHS and trying to get treatment that I think is suitable for my condition. Things are much better these days, I’m currently getting CBT at First Steps through a referral from my GP which is great, although I am starting to panic a little as I only get 6-8 sessions and my next one will be number 6 (more of that soon I think), but on the whole we’re heading in the right direction.

This current bad bout of depression, as opposed to the low level depression that had become so ingrained in my day to day life as to feel normal, made me go and seek treatment from the NHS for the first time in over 10 years. I just woke up one morning about 4 months ago feeling so miserable and unable to carry on that I picked up the phone and made an appointment. I really needed to stop feeling this way, feeling like something really bad was going to happen, feeling worthless and the levels of anger and self loathing getting uncontrollable.

I was really lucky to be able to see a doctor in a few days, phoned on Friday got in Tuesday, which isn’t always the case as at my practice you need to be up early to catch appointments or they get booked up so you need to phone again the next day – if you suffer from social anxiety and have a phobia about phones you can imagine how hard this process can be if you have to deal with it. So was glad it went smooth this time.

The GP I saw was new to me but she was kind and took me seriously and talked to me about my depression and anxiety. We decided on a course of 50mg of sertraline and I said I’d made a decision to go back to MIND for therapy so we held off a referral to First Steps for the time being. She also examined me for the bad back I’d had for 3 years or so which was contributing to my depression but I was at a point of needing to get it all sorted…..I got a referral for physio, but was good to know it wasn’t anything major, a lot of it to do with my ballooning weight from binge eating and sugar addiction.

It really did make such a difference being taken seriously and with kindness, I walked out of he consultation room near to tears as I’d felt that it was such a great break through. The previous visit to a GP at the same practice had been a disaster – and meant I didn’t go to a doctor about my condition for 10 years – thankfully MIND in Barrow had been there for me then where I got therapy from an amazing guy called Ken. The GP had been very dismissive of mental health problems and didn’t seem to believe in depression. I asked to be referred to see the pychi nurse – this was before such great services were in place like first steps – after 8 weeks of waiting I was turned down as my condition wasn’t severe enough to warrant a visit, I would need to be self harming or suicidal. I asked about a local men’s group but was told she didn’t live locally and had no idea. This experience was so hard to have to deal with that I’m not sure where I’d have ended up if I hadn’t been recommended MIND.

I’ll talk about this all in more detail soon I’m sure, just that reading the article brought back some memories of trying to battle through treatment plans when not really being strong enough to do it, so it really does feel like a massive step forward for this to happen. We need to feel in control of our treatment, that we can take charge and be treated with respect and listened to.

A Safe Space – Soundrop Playlist

Blue Hills

This is a playlist looking at what music people listen to when they want to be calm.

I’m researching links between recovery from mental health problems & music so your input is most welcomed – add tracks and please comment on the list

thanks – Shaun

Or click HERE to go to playlist in Soundrop so you can vote and add tracks. (This is a pretty early version of what I’m trying to do so if any developers out there have any ideas please let me know about a better system)

Welcome to A Safe Space

View from Arnside over Morecambe BayThis blog is a personal journey for me, it’s about my ongoing fight against depression, social anxiety and trying to make a living as a musician and community artist and living with mental health problems in the wider world.

All thoughts are my own and are personal reflections about my own situation – I’m happy to communicate with people but if you have any kind of mental health issue go see your doctor, or find a local organisation that can help, I’m a service user at my local MIND – check their site for your local center in the UK – if you live elsewhere check the internet for help, there’s lot’s of people out their to help.

Or if this seems like hard work try telling friends, it really is nothing to be ashamed of – I have found such a great support network since I started being much more open about the issues I have, and also found so many other people that have similar problems.

I hope that some of the stuff that goes up on the blog will be useful to people – I’ll try to focus on positive ways forward I find, how obstacles present themselves and solutions I find and not too much on the details of my depression. I’m wanting this process to be of a positive outlook even if I’m dealing with heavy things.

If you have any thoughts about anything covered let me know, or if you have an idea about what the blog could cover again let me know.

Here’s to us all – we’re all we have – and that’s enough

Love xx

Shaun