Mental health

This morning, I was thinking that the cruellest side-effect of depression is that it robs you of your interest in life. There are many other things that it does: envelops you in darkness, makes you cry, makes you numb; makes you sleep too much or not sleep at all – and these are just a few nasty nails in your daily existence, which becomes like a stifling coffin when you fall foul of this mood disorder. There are countless more. The worst is the thievery of your lust for life, something which is your birthright.

So how does this look, exactly? Well; take everything. Take the sea, the stars, the planet around you. Take music, orchestras, sonatas and smoky nights. Take eucalyptus, maple, oak trees, flowers – roses, marigolds, daisies, peonies. Take books, poems, words, art. Food. Take people in all their glorious infuriating love and laughter and jealousy and sorrow. Take craft, the joy of work, of bending your mind to something that nourishes it. Animals; a dog’s head nestling on your lap. The balletic paw of a cat. The sight of a goldfinch.

Take interest in everything outside of yourself, where the world is, where all its wonder is, where acres and oceans and aeons of discoveries lie, ready to be peeled open and feasted on with a child’s delight. Take all of this and discount it. Fold in to yourself. Take away the universe itself. It cannot hold your attention, not even for a second.

It’s unbelievable, isn’t it? That such a state of mind can exist and persist within our delicate design.

Fist fight

Meditation, Mental health

I had a not-so-lovely dance with rage this morning. It doesn’t really matter what set me off, I’m telling you about it because each time it happens, I am freshly shocked as to where the anger comes from and how it can be so powerful as an emotion.

It’s horrible. It is absolute monkey brain in action. Now that I meditate regularly I notice that the anger usually rises and falls quickly. It doesn’t stay, because I can feel it in my body, I can pinpoint it almost as a separate thing to me. I’m not blindly angry about things anymore. I think meditation has made me take a huge step back from it. It makes me want to examine it. There are distinct levels of being you discover when you meditate every day and there is always, always a very distant layer at the top – one that observes. It looks at what you are doing and it doesn’t say, holy hell that is terrible, or well done chump you’ve lost it again. It’s just sort of sitting there, holding you. I suppose if it could speak it would be calm and neutral. Oh I don’t know what it would say! Anger is such a destructive emotion but I absolutely believe that it is better out than in.

You obviously can’t keep directing it at other people, but you can’t suppress it either. Someone did say to me years ago that my torpor of a depression was anger turned inwards. I thought it was a pretty lazy thing to say, like, how handy for you that you’ve compressed my decades-long depression into one sentence. But now, after some years of looking within myself in order to try to correct my less useful tendencies, I see that they were right.

Anger is not really going to go anywhere, I guess, once you have those tendencies. I think this is brilliant from Maria Popova’s website Brain Pickings. She draws the reader’s attention to the poet May Sarton, who says: ‘Sometimes I think the fits of anger are like a huge creative urge gone into reverse, something dammed up that spills over…’ The creative urge gone into reverse is a great way to put it – it’s some kind of life force; tangible, gone in to reverse, yes. It is something dammed up, for sure. It works with triggers, of course it does – the thing that you are getting angry about now might be small, but it is certainly triggered from something that happened to you in your past.

If you want to grow, really grow as a human being, and become the best one you can be, then you have to spend some time figuring out what these triggers are, and then you have to disable them. They must be unpicked, taken apart and made harmless in their dissection – that’s if you want to stop suffering. And don’t we all?

Out of the darkness arrives the sweet dawn

Mental health

I read this last night in a brilliant collection of essays by Parker J Palmer. ‘Many young people today journey in the dark, as the young always have, and we elders do them a disservice when we withhold the shadowy parts of our lives.’ He goes on to say that when he got depressed in his early 20s, he thought he had developed a ‘unique and terminal case of failure.’ It wasn’t until many years later he understood that what had really happened was that he had ‘merely embarked on a journey toward joining the human race.’

Sorry for quoting the shit out of Parker J Palmer, but there is something incredibly powerful in what the author is saying here. Absolutely, when I was younger, I thought I had developed such a singular sense of failure. It certainly didn’t occur to me that all the older, wiser people I came across might have had horrific struggles with bleakness, darkness, depression, crappy things happening to them too, any of it, all of it. In fact, when I think back to the kind of stories I heard about depressed people – well, Sylvia Plath springs to mind and she stuck her head in the oven. What I’m saying is that the tales of depression I heard about always seemed to end pretty badly. As a teenager and young adult, I did not know that most people had been through their version of Palmer’s ‘journey of darkness’, most had troubles, they all grew from them. Grew up, out in every direction, exponentially. I don’t know why I thought most people had escaped it – that arrogance of youth, as Robyn Davidson called it, perhaps. We are all human, we have troubles and sorrow, we all do. We become fully signed up members of the human race when we peak over to the dark side, when we jump in it, or worse, when we get stuck in it.

Parker is talking about us being role models for younger people. And not the kind of role model that is defined by achievement after achievement and acquisition after acquisition (and I say thank God for that! I ain’t got nothin’ but love in my life). No, the kind of role model who is honest, who talks about any struggles they have had with gentleness and with truth. The kind of role model who is compassionate about the human spectrum of emotion, and knows that the darker shades etched on the page bring out the beautiful bright hues of light. He is saying that we should become the kind of grown ups who say this: Don’t be afraid of the dark, it helps you fall in love with the light. It helps you become the light. When it is dark, and you are stumbling and fumbling everywhere for the switch, or for a match (where’s that fucking match?) to light the candle, or for the flicker of dawn – you will find it. It will come.

This is a surety, this is how we are made, this is what it means to be human. It is how life works, a communion of different shades which meld into the beautiful whole that is your existence. (Or come on, when you are depressed, the hole that is your existence). We tread and skid through hills and valleys, all the way through life. As you get older, you really start to see this, you learn it into your bones; how could you not? We are designed to keep afloat in the whirlpool emotions; we get to feel the same levels of deep joy as we do deep sorrow. That is the pay off for our journey into darkness.

Vigilance on all fronts

Mental health

I went to see author of Mind On Fire: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery, Arnold Thomas Fanning, speak yesterday. Something he said about his recovery struck me: he used the word vigilance. He’s been well for years now; he’s on medication, he’s had therapy – but he also said he has to remain vigilant for the returning signs of mental deterioration.

It’s something I used to joke about with friends years ago, how to handle depression. It’s Vigilance On All Fronts, I used to say, with a half-hearted Charlie’s Angels move, imaginary gun in hand. As the years went on and my messy 20s morphed into my 30s – when shit was getting really real, as in, if you don’t do something about this ongoing mental health problem of yours, your life is going to be fucked – it began to dawn on me that there is no one single way to keep yourself out of the gloopy mire of depression. If you are prone to it, and you are not constantly careful, always on the watch for it, your feet will always remain boggy and muddy and you might never be free of it.

I don’t think you ever feel free from it anyway. Ugh. Once your brain has gone there, and you know it can go there, there is always the fear of slipping back. When I was trying to get out of it in early adulthood (impossible in my teens – all adults in my life were mystified by my behavior, even though it was straight up mental illness, clear as a blue day) it felt that most of my body was covered in this miry muck, even my face. I was blinded by it.

There was no ability to pursue a ‘vigilance on all fronts’ plan as I couldn’t even get to point one, letter A, any start of any plan. My question most days was as simple as how can I get out of bed when I don’t feel that life is worth living? Yesterday’s talk, if I’m honest, made me feel a sharp sliver of depression all over again, because it reminded me of that gruesome time: teens, 20s, early 30s, then post-natal mental illness too, all of it – and it made me briefly terrified that I’d have to go back to any of those places. I don’t want to ever go back but that is not how mental illness works. It is ruthless and can strike at any time.

Now from the vantage point of feeling (relatively) well, I know that vigilance on all fronts works to prevent a relapse. It means that you simply can’t let any area of your life slip for long. You have some leeway, but not much. Right now, there are behaviors in certain areas of my life that I will have to rein in otherwise the looming beast will be back. Once you are there, it is hard to get out of it. If you have fallen down the black pit, in the short-term, the only way to claw out of it is with medical help. Usually pills, and talking to someone who knows the workings of the mind. But if you are a fair distance from that hollow pit, you can still practice vigilance on all fronts. It should keep you away from the edge, and give you some safety rope if you do fall in.

For me, vigilance on all fronts is: getting enough sleep (*hysterical laughter in background), making sure I eat properly (though I’m not clear on what this is anymore), exercise (always on the to-do list, never done), not drinking too much, preferably nothing, listening to my kids, pursuing an activity of the soul (usually writing or reading, or walking on the beach), making sure I’ve had some nourishing conversations with friends, trying to listen to and understand my husband, that other entwined root of the precious tree that is my family, and finally, hands down – the big one, the one that I’ve found – for me – keeps my brain and my feet firmly out of that mire: meditating, every day.

You’re ok – I’m not ok

Mental health

‘I assert that life is beautiful in spite of everything!’ says Tchaikovsky in one of his letters which I read here, in an article written by the impeccable Maria Popova. Tchaikovsky had lapses of stinking depression, too. Maria notes that what was ‘most remarkable yet quintessentially human about his disposition was the ability to assure his loved ones of the very things he was unable to internalize himself.’

This is so true: how easy it is to comfort others but be ruthless towards ourselves. What a relief it is to give a rousing speech to a friend about how to ‘fix’ their life, while coldly ignoring our own needs. It soothes our existential wounds, helping others, diving deep into their problems while callously ignoring our own. We can do this with singular self-destructiveness, stubbornly deflecting the glare of our own troubles, rushing to the aid of everyone else. Listen, I know that’s nice for everybody else but if we do this we risk getting stuck in a brutal living hell; there’s an underlying, inescapable pulse in people who do this, a horror of facing their feelings, a bone-tired disinclination to come to their own rescue. Whole lives can go by and people can die without recognizing this.

Everybody deserves to be happy – trite but true, and we must assimilate this information as adults, if we haven’t done so as children. It’s our responsibility to make ourselves happy (yes, I know: newsflash! I have only recently discovered this.) Of course, making others happy is the one of the genuine great joys (and arguably ultimate purpose) of life but your cells will only recognize, and so be nourished by, that joy if you are doing it from a stable base of your own contentment.

You can help and help – giving parts of you away that you haven’t ever dared to give yourself – until you are so tired you suddenly don’t want to get out of bed in the morning. And it’s not physical fatigue, it’s the sort of tiredness spurred by the recognition and subsequent quashing of a small voice inside you that says: What about me? Is it it ok to help me, too?

Well, it’s not just ok to help yourself, it is essential to the evolution of the self, to the growth of your family, to the circle of people around you, and the city or town or country in which you live. And actually, all your descendants too, because all sorts of pain is sleepily passed down through generations, and you can stop it.

Here’s the story of Hercules and The Wagoner to clumsily hammer the point home. A farmer is stuck on a muddy road in the pissing rain, the wheel of his wagon wedged into the mud. He sits and swears and curses the mud and the wheel, shaking his fist at heaven. Come on Hercules, do me a solid here! Do fucking something! Eventually Hercules comes down, no doubt rolling his eyes, and says ‘Put your shoulder to the wheel, urge on your horses… I won’t help you unless you make some effort to help yourself.’ The wagoner gets it, stops giving out, starts to at least try to push the wheel and coax his horses on. Hercules readily helps. Everything shifts; everything changes.

Caveat: If you are so profoundly depressed that you can barely move or think or speak, and someone quotes Hercules and The Wagoner to you, tell them to fuck off.

I see you

Mental health

I’m rereading a book I read when I was about 16, The Catcher in the Rye. If you took refuge in books as a teenager, then you probably know about Holden Caulfield and his beef with ‘phonies’; they were mostly adults, and they were mostly bullshitting him.

If your parents or the adults in your life are disengaged, then being a teenager sucks. That age is so tender. They are children, they are starting to look like adults. Their brains are exploding with childish things and grown up things and hormones, and everything else. If old man time gave me a free pass to go back, I wouldn’t. I suffered intensely. In fact, my brain froze on teenage mode all the way through my 20s and even beyond, because I didn’t mature properly. The reason I didn’t, I think, is because I didn’t feel ‘seen’. I wanted so desperately for an adult to understand even an iota of where I was coming from. But they couldn’t.

I wonder can I give this to my children – I really want to. What do I mean by being ‘seen’? (It sounds bloody awful, doesn’t it? Like something from a compulsively cheesy American TV drama.) I mean: That they feel loved for who they are, no matter what. That they feel adored for the ‘bad bits’ as well as the good bits. Actually, that they never learn there is such a thing as ‘bad bits’ within the young self. There aren’t.

I try to watch my language with my children. I try to say things like oh that’s naughty behaviour instead of you are a naughty boy. I read it in some parenting book somewhere. Do children pick up on such nuances of language? I don’t know. I’m winging it like everyone else. I tell them I love them, a lot. I hope that whatever I’m doing, that by the time they are teenagers in a few short years, they will still be talking to me. Really talking to me.

I really hope that by then, I will have given them the tools to slash through the confusion that settles in adolescence. I want to show them that most of humanity is not phony, but utterly glorious in its inescapable spectrum of joy to sorrow, ugly to beautiful – and utterly reliable in its passage from darkness to the surety of light.

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Big life

Mental health

In another life, I lived on a tiny island called La Maddalena. One summer evening, the heady scent of wild gorse in the air, I flew around the island on the back of a friend’s scooter. ‘Che vuoi fare da grande?’ he yelled into the sea-fresh wind, thousands of tiny stars twinkling in the sky above as we sped on into the violet night.

My Italian wasn’t great then. I translated it literally, ‘What do you want do… in the big?’ (It means: What do you want to do when you grow up?’). I told him I wanted to write. I wanted to ‘be’ a writer.

Life took over: or more accurately, mental illness took over. I spent much of the next decade profoundly depressed. It wasn’t a mild, nagging grey cloud over my head. It was massively debilitating, utterly disabling. My whole spirit totally suffocated under its power. Often, I couldn’t even rouse myself from sleep. I threw away years being depressed, but I didn’t have a choice. I really didn’t understand how to get well.

This is the monumental might of human emotions. If you let them overwhelm you, they can be so powerful and so dangerous. There aren’t many solutions offered for young people who are struggling with mental illness. At the time, I didn’t understand what was wrong with me. I thought I was incredibly lazy. I thought I had an undiagnosed disorder that made me sleep all the time.

The truth is that the weight of my thoughts had left me physically immobilized. It would be many years before I started to get well. I tried many different ways of trying to recover. Having children gave me a new determination not to succumb to the devil and the dark. Meditation started to heal my brain. I could feel it happening. And each time I do it, I feel it happening still.

Brain problems

Mental health

It’s so predictable. Your brain will tell you in a thousand different ways all the reasons why it’s a great idea not to do something that is good for you.

Take writing this post now, for example. My brain is being super helpful this morning. Honestly, it’s really cheering me on, lobbing uplifting ditties such as ‘What’s the point?’ ‘You’re sick, just rest’ ‘It’s Sunday, who’s reading this, anyway?’ and the classic, old reliable ‘Just to do it tomorrow, instead.’

I’ve been following that ‘Do it tomorrow’ command like a mole who has lost its way home for most of my life. It is lethal. Willpower is a muscle that you must use otherwise it drowns, suffocates, dies… whatever way you want to put it. It is a recent revelation to me that you get things done by doing them.

It’s the quintessential move from the depressive mind: Fix it tomorrow. Before children, I used to spend hours in bed, not sleeping, but trying to fix my problems. By thinking about them. It’s called rumination. It sucks. You build crappy neural networks and highways, constantly reinforcing the bad stuff with really dodgy construction work. I was convinced that if I thought about things for long enough, I would find a solution.

Thoughts are so seductive. They really will have you believe that it’s to your benefit to sit and think about the same things, over and over again, until they are ‘solved’. That they can actually seduce you into putting off stuff to an eternal tomorrow is truly astonishing.

Sometimes I think thoughts and action are two such opposing states that one is death, the other is life.