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.

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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 🙂