Slip, sliding away

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I’m feeling low. I’m tired, lethargic, sad and feeling a bit hopeless. I was really getting on top of it all back there. After seeing the doctor and starting taking setraline, going back to therapy and exercising I was feeling the best I’ve felt for years, then the backwards slips over Christmas as written about here. I’ve been trying to get a sense of momentum going again since then, nearly a month since I wrote that post, but I’ve carried on slipping and now feel back into a fairly bleak, hopeless condition. There really is nothing that brought me here, in many ways life has been picking up since Christmas and I should be feeling much more positive, but I don’t.

Time to head back to the doctor’s and talk about it all again, go back to my therapist and start from the beginning again, and again, and again, and again……that’s the hard part, working really hard for months trying to get better and only achieving some kind of hard fought stability, running to be still. It’s all I can do though. If anyone feels they want to say to me ‘snap out of it’ I’d like to say ‘go f*** yourself’ – I really do wish it was that easy, I’d have been snapping like a good ‘un years a go, I really don’t like feeling like this, honestly I don’t. I was enjoying starting to feel happy and content for weeks at a time, instead of struggling to get up, then struggling to get dressed and work, walking round with a feeling of dread all the time. Snap, snap, and tap my heals three times and still no joy.

So other than going to see all my professionals again and seeing what we can do, what else can I do? Not sure, off to MIND this afternoon and booked Dr appointment for Thursday so that’s that taken care of. Other than that I thought it might be useful to try and write about how I feel and sharing it with you all, even if it just achieves getting it out of my head a bit.

So how do I feel? I’m not swooning around with my hand to my head feeling oh so very miserable. It’s more of a low level sadness, a murky, dank place filled with a sense of dread. The day starts with the struggle to get up, lying there wanting to be up, but unable to move sometimes, just arguing with myself, pushing myself to get out of bed. This can take quite a while, currently mainly less than an hour though, my record in the past has been much longer, days sometimes. It is very hard to describe this battle to move, if you suffer from depression you’ll get it I think, if you don’t you might well just think I need to ‘man up’ or something. It’s a little more complicated than just getting up though. It can feel like I’m being held down, almost physically, I really want to get up but there’s something inside my head that won’t let me, so I’m struggling away getting more and more upset, feeling tired and drained until finally I make it. Sometimes I need to go back to sleep and hope I’m better when I wake up, other times I fool myself by thinking of something else and then suddenly making a move. Yes I can see the funny side of this as I type, it does seem a tad silly, but that can often be the start to my day.

Once I’m up the search for motivation can start. The old saying ‘my get up and go got up and went’ comes to mind. I can lose days just sitting around, pottering away, not really doing anything when I should be working. It is mainly looking for relief from that sense of dread, the feelings of hopelessness that wash over me. I became self employed to help with this, which mostly works. I can have duvet days and then work to catch up as I am prone to having my best hours in the evening so this flexibility really does help, as does being able to work in my pyjamas and have breaks when I want them. This way of working has been pretty successful for me so I’ve been able to not have to rely on benefits and roughly been able to manage my condition. It’s been a constant struggle but the best way of doing it for me.

It really is hard to describe the feelings of depression, all the cliches about black clouds, black dogs and the rest are pretty accurate. The feelings of hopelessness and dread that bubble up, the isolation you feel because you think people don’t want to be around your miserable face, the being on the verge of tears for long periods. It’s very draining to live like this, which makes it even harder to live a normal life. You expend so much energy doing simple things others don’t think about. The loss of so much time to self doubt, anxiety and lethargy is so wearing it creates a negative cycle that drags you down. It also takes much more energy to pull yourself back up, you are constantly wading through a fast running river. All the good things are upstream but you have to fight to get there, even having a little rest is tiring as any false move and there’s a slip and the river pulls you under. It can take a while to get any sort of grip on anything solid, you watch helplessly as those markers you worked so hard to get beyond rush past, usually not for the first time. Once you find a little stillness and can get back to your feet the only thing to do is start wading against the current again. I try to believe it will be easier to tread these familiar parts again. I’ve been along them before so my footing should be easier, the landscape around me I know so can find the better ways of moving quicker. I can quickly get back to where I fell. Two steps forward one step back indeed! Sometimes a 100 steps back. But there isn’t another way I will consider. I could just let the current take me to where it want’s, which really isn’t an option as I do want to be better. I could just set up camp on the side of the river here, it’s ok there’s food and water and maybe it’s a good compromise? I lived for many years like that, working jobs I don’t care for and getting by, keeping things bottled up and surviving – again this doesn’t feel like an option either anymore.

So this is where I am, struggling and sad but unwilling to stop fighting. I’ve got back up again and started pushing back through the river of my own depression. I don’t really have a destination in mind anymore, that life is set to be the wading. That’s fine, that’s me. I do have a fierce sense of self under all this self doubt, this self hatred. People that know me see this, it’s what has helped me survive over the years. I am generally happy with who I am, my life and love my home and my beautiful partner Janice. I treasure all this and it keeps me going. I know I’ll feel better again soon, slowly over time.

It really is the little things that get you. The skipping the morning stretches, fine one day then another reason, then the chocolate bars creep back, then cycling feels like such an effort, then the CBT work is missed. Then before you know it you’re fighting for breath being dragged along by the negative current. I’ve been getting pulled along faster and faster for the last couple of months. Really getting swamped by it all, no sense of control. Feeling overwhelmed by work I need to do but unable to find the energy to get stuck in, which feeds my negative view of myself. But I’ve started to get a very slight grip.

I stopped today. Stopped still and started breathing a little deeper. After a quick talk with Janice this morning I phoned the Dr. I’ve not seen her since way before Christmas, I couldn’t get an appointment at Christmas and was so stressed out about running out of meds I sorted my prescription then but should have gone back sooner, when the darkness started to creep back. Not to worry though, I will go back and talk to her, see what the way forward is from that angle. I also have a therapy appointment this afternoon so will talk through where I’m at with her. This generally helps me, not sure if it cures anything or not but I leave felling better. I also need to rebook my First Steps appointment I missed. I have had a cold which lost me a couple of days, especially after the fogged brain, medicated, snotty middle of the night accident of walking into a glass door. Minor cuts to hands and face so was very lucky. I think this in some weird way was what has helped me turn a corner. It made me stop and rest, to slow down everything and gather my strength.

I’ve been throwing myself at getting better, exercising, dieting, trying to get more work, doing stuff round the house, trying to get my body to do regular hours. This had worn me out, I have been physically run down as well as mentally. Then I got a bad head cold. I realised I needed to take better care of myself if the end result was walking straight into a door….so I’m slowly getting back to my feet, re-learning to be gentle on myself. I need to relax and just take it all at the correct pace. Not worry about the slips but reinforce the positives. After a few days of illness induced non exercise I’m going to have a gentle cycle and then have something nice for dinner before going out to MIND. This afternoon and evening I need to start a list of things that need doing, both work and personal and start getting them in order so I can chip away at them. It will feel less overwhelming if I know what needs doing. I’ll not feel better for a while yet, but I can at least start to feel in control again. To know what I need to do and gently head in the right direction.

So time to hit publish and get stuck into the day a little. I have set myself some small targets that are achievable. Mainly to not beat myself up, to have something nice for dinner and move on from there.

Walking back to happiness……

ever………
so……..
slowly………..

but………
ever…….
so…….
surely…….

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Guest Blog – Alex

Drawing by Alex BottenWhen I first told Shaun I’d try to write something for his blog I intended to describe my experiences with depression, and outline how my music and art had helped me overcome some of the worst aspects of the illness. But the more I thought about it the more I realised I couldn’t do that.

 Why?

Well, it’s not like that for me. I wish I could tell you all an uplifting tale of triumph over adversity, about how my darkest moments have been bathed in light by the act of creation, or of the times I’ve turned the all consuming void of despair into some of the greatest art ever seen. But I can’t, because it wouldn’t be an accurate description of my situation.

My situation…..my situation is one where depression and anxiety has stripped me of confidence and robbed me of opportunity, where my relentlessly messed up brain chemistry has convinced me that everyone thinks that every single thing I do is shit.

I’m cursed with an exceptional memory for perceived slights, able to recall with vivid clarity the way I felt when, 23 years ago, on the afternoon before my first band’s first ever gig, my best friend at college suggested that he should sing for us that evening instead of me because ‘you can’t really sing, can you?’. I recall every single demo rejection from the days when that kind of thing seemed important, and I’m incapable of dismissing all the times I’ve been told that I’m not good enough, or that the music I made was ‘unsuitable’ for this or that venue, or event. Yes, I also remember the successes, the labels that wanted to put my music on vinyl, the Peel plays, the two appearances at T in the Park, the positive reviews (including having my guitar playing described as ‘inspired’ by Melody Maker, and Thee Moths’ second album being dubbed ‘lo-fi magic’ by NME), but those mean nothing to me. They seem too few and far between, and increasingly vanishing into the past.

No, my memory seems to disproportionately expand the negative events, and downplays the positives as if they were no big deal – hell, even writing the above caused a voice in the back of my head to start grumbling ‘stop being a boastful bastard’!

So I interpret someone having not noticed that I’ve got something available to listen to as a direct ‘fuck you!’ from them, I read ‘it’s not really the kind of thing we’d use’ as ‘you’re a worthless piece of crap, and your work is shit’, and I imagine that all my artist and musician friends see me as the talent less wannabe at the edge of their scene – the deluded hanger on who hasn’t the wit or self awareness to just pack it all in. Fuck, I even felt aggrieved that hardly anyone had noticed my birthday on Facebook! How messed up is that??

And I keep on making things, churning out more and more work, in many cases more in a single year than many artists make in a lifetime, as if quantity will make up for a self-assumed lack or quality, or the sheer weight of created things will cause people to pay attention…and then I get bitter and upset when I’m not hailed as the genius part of my ego thinks I should be praised as, even though a much larger part of my super-ego is simultaneously telling me that I’m rubbish and will always be cursed to obscurity.

Maybe moving to another city will help, as Birmingham is an absolute drag to do anything in. Maybe someone helping me out as a booking manager would be good, as I loathe having to deal with venues and promoters, whilst always being desperate to play as many shows as possible. Or maybe telling people what’s going on in my head will allow them to better understand me, and so lead to more opportunities from those who may have mistaken me for someone confident, someone in total control of his ‘career’. Maybe, or maybe not.

At the heart of it all is a mental illness, a depressive disorder with an anxiety component, which has whispered ‘you’re shit’ in my ear for 25 years, which would like nothing more than to see me give up creating altogether. Whether I do or not might ultimately depend of the levels of support I get from my peers and friends…help I feel unable to ask for. So, screwed if I do, screwed if I don’t. Yay,

So what’s the message from all this? Depression is a horrible thing to live with, and makes the standard struggles of artists into a bitterness inducing series of mis-interpreted reactions and imagined slights….and that’s not great for creativity.

Anyone want to be my manager?

music/visual – alexbotten.co.uk

blogging – athingadaybyalex.wordpress.com

writinghttp://www.lulu.com/shop/alex-botten/hanging-around/paperback/product-15055607.html and https://itunes.apple.com/gb/book/hanging-around/id443746821?mt=11

t-shirtshttp://www.mysoti.com/designer/theealex

more arthttp://www.gigposters.com/designer/11753_Alex_Botten.html

The Comforter – Laughing Stock by Talk Talk

An interesting band Talk Talk. I remember them being a synth pop band, they were OK, quite liked Such A Shame and even bought Talk Talk the single, then kinda forgot about them. Then sometime in the early 90’s I was introduced to the later albums, Spirit Of Eden & Laughing Stock. Sometimes music just hits you right between the eyes and both these albums do, especially Laughing Stock. I’m listening to it now and it still sounds as warm, soulful and full of wounded wonder as it did 20 years a go.

It’s hard to explain the sound of Laughing Stock, a post jazz, minimal, melancholic, smoky vision of another life, another world. It hazily passes by with no real choruses, the lyrics are abstract and convey only illusions of narrative. But it feels so alive. Every note is just perfect, it washes over you in waves of emotion, pulling you in to it’s heart, on the verge of joyous tears, knowing every passage but discovering new sounds every play.

It’s not an album to stick on at a dinner party, it’s one for late night contemplation and meditation. It has atmospheres that fade in and out but that demand your full attention, drifts then swells into forceful passages that leave you giddy before drifting away again.

Laughing Stock has become my favourite album. I never get tired of listening to it. It’s seen me through some dark nights, it’s deep humanity keeping me going when my depression has made me very vulnerable, pulled me back from stupid actions a couple of times. I’m very much not religious but this takes me as close to the spiritual as I get. The music is enough, it’s pure human spirit, fragile and unsure and angry and at peace with itself.

It also has been a massive influence on my own music, the search for that drifting sense of nostalgia and humanity. I’ve not come close to the majesty of Laughing Stock or the genius of it’s leader Mark Hollis but that’s what keeps me going.

So turn the lights down low and take a wonderful emotional journey to the heart of the human spirit.

Slipping back to old ways

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When do you start being aware of a relapse? Indeed when does it become a relapse? One of the worst aspects of my depression has always not being aware of it creeping back until it becomes obvious, but then the lethargy and self hatred can be so strong it pulls me in for weeks, sometimes months, occasionally years.

I’ve been doing really well with getting myself together over the last few months, until Christmas came along. I’m not quite sure if it was a seasonal thing or other factors that started me off on the road to relapse, but I ended up feeling like the work I’ve put in over the last few months was for nothing. I had a complete meltdown one morning and ended up in tears and very confused. I didn’t know why I felt so bad, I know I was tired as my insomnia had come back over the previous couple of weeks. I ended up going back to bed for a couple of hours and felt much better for it. I’m still not sure what caused me to feel so bad but I thought it might make more sense to me if I wrote about it. So where do I start? The signs of slippage I think.

As I’ve been getting to know myself, my triggers and how they impact on my life I have started to work out how to stop some of the worst aspects of my condition, and to start to stop them having as great an impact on me emotionally.

The first one is sugar. I turn to chocolate and pastry when I’m upset, well to be honest I eat anything but my preferred binge foods are chocolate, chewy sweets, junk food and pies in that order. I am getting it under control, I’m eating much healthier now than I ever have, but I still go to chocolate now and again. Social situations are particularly bad for pushing the cravings. Talking with my therapist I realised that I have bought a bar of chocolate within an hour of seeing her every time. Even if I have a good session and feel happy there’s a kind of body memory that shouts for sugar. This is hardly surprising as I have been binging on chocolate since I was a kid, thinking about it I have self medicated with food for nearly 40 years. No wonder the body still wants it even when my mind is focused.

The second is anger at other people’s perceived success. Social media is a real bugger for pushing this one, seeing that person going there, this person doing that, all so very happy? Sound familiar? It’s one of the things that finally pushed me to going to the Doctors in the summer. I was fixating on what others were doing for weeks, to the point of not being able to concentrate on my own life. I would just turn over in my mind, for example someone got a gig in a cool venue, my mind would start with – how did they get that gig?, why them not me? Well they’re rubbish anyway, I wouldn’t want the gig anyway, why don’t I get offered stuff like that…..you get the picture…..I’d end up in such a tizz, on the verge of tears and prone to what a good friend termed ‘Shaunie Rants’ made much worse if alcohol was involved. I started getting relief from this horrible cycle with a combination of being prescribed Setraline, exercise and blocking out the worst of it by repeating ‘Everyone’s doing their best’ over and over in my head, sometimes whilst cycling furiously till I was exhausted. I since worked out that this is mainly anger at my depression, at my own inability to engage in public and the sense of isolation that I had got to. I wasn’t really that bothered about what others were doing, but that I wasn’t doing things, that my condition was holding me back from getting the most out of life. Sounds so simple writing it down now, but in the maelstrom of anger and confusion it didn’t seem at all obvious. The medication and therapy has really helped me as has telling people on social media how pleased I was for them, a small thing clicking like, but I found it did really help me start to feel more positive about things.

Another bad trigger is taking stuff to heart really badly. Sometimes a simple comment that the food I’ve made is a little bland that day can put me in complete meltdown for hours, historically it could see me binging for days and completely letting myself go, beating myself up over it, then cycling back to relapse. I still have problems with this, I’m much better than I was and am able to take things in a much calmer way 🙂 still have my moments but CBT has really helped to push me to a better thought pattern with such things. I’m feeling much better at being able to deal calmly and analyse what people are saying more instead of getting really negative and either withdrawing or getting really angry.

So, anyway, I was talking about slippage. Sorry if it went a bit off track there, I though it was good to establish a few things before looking at my latest relapse. I’ve never been a great editor so tend to just write so if you can go with it we’ll get to the point I promise.

Slippage then. I have had a lot of relapses over the years. It tends to work along the lines of cycling between not looking after myself at all and doing a whole ‘my body is a temple’ routine, which in the past has contributed to my relapses. I’ve put too much pressure on myself and a couple of small slips have knocked the whole deck of cards over and then I feel like I’m back to square one. Over the few years I’ve been working on being gentle on myself, this has been working pretty well. I gave up smoking 2 and a half years a go by not worrying if I smoked or not, which took the pressure off so much I found it pretty easy to not smoke. Much better than smoking a couple and then hating myself so much that I thought I might as well smoke heavier than I did before. There’s a hell of a lot to be said about being gentle on yourself, can heartily recommend it.

Cycles of trying hard, getting puritanical about health, then months of severe self loathing and binging and lethargy. I can kind of laugh about some of it now, sleeping on my sofa for 6 months because my bed was covered in stuff (when a friend came and helped me out it only took about 10 minutes to tidy, but I was in no mental state to tackle it without help) and getting so I had bars of chocolate next to my bed so if I woke up and felt bad I could eat some before falling asleep again, I’m really glad I’ve stopped this as a number of times I did wake up covered in chocolate…..like I said I can laugh about it now 🙂

This stab at recovery has been much healthier. Since the summer of 2012 I’ve been cycling for 30 minutes most days and not trying to do more each day. This has meant I don’t get to a point where I can’t do enough so I give in. Food wise I’ve researched nutrition quite a bit and am eating much healthier and smaller meals. I have found out just how hard it is to remove sugar from your diet, that sugar is hidden in so many ‘healthy’ food products. I now use an iPhone app called myfitnesspal that I log my food and exercise in. This means that I’m mindful of my food intake both calorie wise and how much sugar and carbs I’m having. I try and cook from scratch as much as possible, with let’s of veg and pulses. I’ve lost 4 1/2 stone now in just over a year so going well, well it was until…….

……relapse……I was doing great, hitting December and I was feeling pretty fit and healthy, much more connected to people and myself. I’d made some breakthroughs in therapy so was feeling good about myself. I was eating well, getting to bed at a reasonable time and getting up early, doing my stretches and exercises. Thinking back the first sign of slippage was chocolate. I started having a double decker every now and again when shopping as a treat. Then I started to get cravings back to the point of going out to the shops as an excuse to buy chocolate. Chocolate started creeping back into the house and I’d eat it if it was there. I’d had a couple of mini binges over the previous few months but this was creeping back into eating chocolate everyday, then getting a couple of bars, or a big bar and eating it in one sitting. I started to feel on edge after I ate it and started worrying that I was relapsing, which started small shocks of self loathing, which made me eat more. My partner noticed that portion sizes were creeping up at meal times. I started to feel angry with myself so started to feel a bit withdrawn and sulky, which made me feel worse. Still nothing too bad, I was exercising so wasn’t going over my calorie limit too much, then we hit the Christmas period….

I’ve not liked Christmas for a long time, I find it a really depressing and stressful time of the year, but I’d decided to try and embrace it more and to try and enjoy it, but that didn’t really work. I don’t really engage with it bar cooking the Christmas meal and enjoying family time on the day. My ideal Christmas would be token presents not more that £10 spent on each other and then a lovely meal eaten at a slow pace and nice conversation. What I hate is that so many people start getting stressed out by late November, the worry about that perfect Christmas, the presents, the food, who’s going where. I can feel the tension mounting for weeks leading up to the day. Everywhere gets busier and there’s more aggression by the day. People are snappy with each other and get sucked into this horrible, capitalist black hole of going into debt to buy things people don’t really want. So all this definitely ramped up my stress levels, even with some survival tricks I’ve built up – the main one is financial and it’s asking for money off people then not buying myself anything with it but just paying off the bill for the presents I bought for people. Think I might have even broke even this year 🙂

With it being Christmas I also started to have a glass of wine here and there, and a little tequila, then the Christmas chocolates arrived so ate too much of them. I then started worrying about my calories so rather than cutting back I stopped filling my food diary in, and then I missed doing my stretches in a morning, just today I would tell myself, but then the next day the same again. But then the increase in sugar and alcohol, the general stress of Christmas and a couple of rough months emotionally started catching up with me. I started not being able to sleep, then getting up late, needing caffeine to get going, then I got to the point of stopping up all night to try and get back into some sort of pattern. Then I had my mini breakdown. I just completely couldn’t cope with anything, I was in tears and upset, couldn’t explain what was happening. Luckily this didn’t last too long. I slept for a little while post cry and then had a few lethargic days before starting to try and get back on track.

Now I’m back in work mode I’m feeling much better. I’m back to setting the alarm in a morning, try and do my stretches and get breakfast before turning the iPad on, now read the papers, check social media for good things my friends are doing, check emails etc before cycling and then getting on with work. I’m still eating too much chocolate but it’s getting better and back eating well again. The thing with slippage is just that it’s slippage and not a full on drop. It’s small things pushing you the wrong way, then more small things till you end up back where you started. I’ve just learnt to not be too hard on myself, to look for the positives in the situation, to learn from it all and get back up again and try again. I think I’ll never fully recover from depression, in that relapse is never too far away, so I need to make each day count that I’m well, head in the right direction as best as I can and to remember….

EVERYONE’S DOING THIER BEST!

And now there’s a little nagging doubt that this post is far too long and rambling, but you know what, I’m going to leave it as it is because it’s helped me put the last few weeks into perspective and that’s important isn’t it? Thank you if you are still with me – gold stars all round 🙂

Xx

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.

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 🙂

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.