In the space of a week or so this spring, I blazed through seasons one and two of You’re the Worst, and have now (unfortunately) caught up in time to poodle along at the rate of one episodes per week of season three. Sad face.
And I am utterly obsessed. I picked it up as something light to watch in bitesize twenty-two minute chunks, but soon found that as LOLingly hilarious as it is, it’s also bitingly real. It’s real-life romantic instead of rom-com romantic AKA close to zero romance, but still tender in all the right ways. It features a very realistic number of CARBS. But mainly, the characters. The emotionally-stunted, self-involved, fucked-up characters. For the purpose of this post, let’s talk about Gretchen, played by Aya Cash.
Gretchen’s clinical depression isn’t introduced until season two, when she starts sneaking out in the middle of the night to cry in her car (while playing snake on her burner phone; she likes to play snake while she cries, so what?). Are you saying, a whole season in, they just dropped in a storyline about the main character being ‘suddenly’ depressed? Err, yeah, and it was great, and honest. She’s had it for forever, she tells Jimmy. Because depression can come and go, and it doesn’t always manifest as crying in your car, or lying in the foetal position like Gretchen does for large chunks of season two. Perhaps she just reached crisis point, and had actually been in a bad place all along. And perhaps it came out of nowhere and mowed her down. Either way, a storyline like this featuring so heavily in what is essentially a comedy is something I just had to talk about, because I friggin’ love it.
Comedy is funny for being real; for taking circumstances and situations we can all recognise – or at least imagine – and picking the lens through which we see them. You’ve got one of these lenses yourself, called your perspective, but despite the number of times you’ve probably been told that it’s the (not so) secret of happiness and the only thing that matters, it’s not such a doddle to control. Don’t feel bad. Everyone’s too close to their own problems, and I would bet you anything the ones who tell you to ‘turn that frown around’ in a faux helpful/low-key passive-aggressive way are the biggest messes when they’re having a bad day.
My point is, anyway, that film and television present a way of being able to examine the circumstances of our own lives from one step removed, and in whichever light the creators choose. And it’s safe to engage wholly and passionately with these narratives – and you know you’ve cried over the fake pains of fake people – precisely because they’re not real, and yet at the same time they’re more intimately told to us than those of the real people in our lives.
Because as the adage goes, ‘you’ve got to laugh’. Maybe not at yourself. Definitely not at other people. But whether you’re clinically depressed or just premenstrual, if you find yourself sobbing inconsolably because you hairsprayed your underarms and doused your ‘do in deodorant, know there’s a giggle in there somewhere. It’s ok if you can’t see it – that’s what TV’s for.
What’s more, anything that frames mental illness as something other than scary/potentially dangerous/awkward to acknowledge or deal with head on/contagious maybe??? is a very, very good thing. Take it from someone who knows that speaking openly about your depression can garner any number of responses, and many of them are less than chill. And that’s tough. My depression is a huge part of my story, especially as far as explaining my current circumstances goes, and if I can’t introduce it into conversation even passingly without being seen to be ‘oversharing’, it kind of puts me in a bind. I end up using euphemisms like ‘burnt out’ or ‘struggling’ or even the splendidly ambiguous ‘learning to be easier on myself’.
I can recommend You’re the Worst on so many levels, but in particular the level on which they handle mental illness without kid gloves and squeamishness. Besides Gretchen, the character of Edger is an Iraq veteran and PTSD sufferer, and as of the beginning of season three he’s made the decision to come off his meds – uh oh. I have everything crossed that they handle this story arc as classily as they have done Gretchen’s.
I sprained my ankle three weeks ago, and I’ve gone full Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window; peering covetously out at the mobile world, blinds drawn against the sweltering heat. Remember that summer I was so desperate for? Yeah, it’s happened and I’m missing it all.
For the most part, it’s been fine. A blessing, almost. Being bound to my desk with my foot up on a cushion has been good for my productivity at a really crucial time, when I’m trying to market my e-book all by myself. But it also fucking sucks. I’m going to be a bridesmaid in September and I was supposed to have a supermodel physique by now. Instead I’m slowly getting squishier, like the contents of the butter dish – just replace ‘hot weather’ with ‘consolatory Dairy Milk’. Also, I’m not sleeping well. It’s hard to get tuckered out when your biggest exertion over the course of the day is hopping one-footed up and down the stairs.
But my biggest complaint isn’t my lack of ‘thigh gap’ or the quality of my sleep. It’s that exercise is as good for my mind as it is for my body, and for a while I’m going without.
Let’s get one thing straight: the idea that you can put on your running shoes and go cure yourself of depression is ignorant and misguided on so many levels. For a start, it implies that depression is a symptom of laziness or inertia; that it’s a character flaw of sorts. Suggesting a simple, one size fits all solution that reduces a potentially life-threatening illness to a matter of lifestyle is, to put it mildly, unhelpful.
Maybe you know a depressed person whose exercise is limited to shuffling between the sofa and the fridge, and you’re thinking ‘but of course getting up and about would make them feel better! That’s how endorphins work!’ And perhaps you’re right. It’s just science, after all. It’s also nearly entirely beside the point. Let’s imagine you have polio. Your muscles have degenerated to nothingness, and you can barely stand. That’s not to say you wouldn’t get a boost of endorphins from a little jogging, and who wouldn’t benefit from that? You should do it; it’ll be good for you. Yeah, that’s pretty much what you’re saying to your friend with depression.
Your depressed friend probably knows that if they could pull themselves out of bed and get their heart rate up a little, then sure, maybe they’d feel a bit better for a while. And maybe they wouldn’t. Don’t assume. Don’t assume that they don’t want to. Don’t assume that they haven’t spent all their mental energy that day just working up to the idea. Don’t assume they never put their running shoes on, and get as far as the front door before they’re hit with the heart breaking fact that they’re kidding themselves; that their body and their mind don’t care what they want; that they’re just not capable.
And if you’re not sure, then don’t assume your depressed friend isn’t even more active than you are. Save from these last few weeks, I work out three to five times a week, and guess what? Still not cured. In my case – ‘recovering’ is guess you could say – I can usually find it in me to get moving, and it’s as useful as part of maintaining a routine and personal confidence as it is for my brain chemicals.
It’s never comfortable to make changes like this one when I don’t know what the effect will be on my precarious health, but you know what? I’m fine. I think I’m as good as I’ve been all year. Maybe I’d be even better if I was still routinely working out, but I think it just goes to show that there’s nothing make or break about a little cardio; that you can’t cure yourself with exercise any more than you can induce clinical depression by skipping it; and that you should probably watch where you’re stepping if you don’t want to spend your summer imagining the murderous plotting of your shady neighbours.
As if Kristen Bell and I didn’t already have so much in common, she has recently opened up about dealing with depression and anxiety. In an interview on Off Camera with Sam Jones, Bell talks about how both her mother and her grandmother before her struggled with mental illness, and how she compensates for her anxiety and depression with bubbliness and cheer.
Not only does this level of candidness from someone in the public eye have an invaluable impact on our perception of mental illness, it’s also incredibly courageous. The fear when opening up about your mental health is that it will change the way somebody sees you, and Bell is facing that possibility three-billion-fold – in other words, the number of people worldwide with internet access – for the sake of letting us know that she is not ashamed.
Up until the last year, most of my closest friends had no idea I had dealt with depression. Neither did my employer. I was in my final semester of university before I brought it up with my housemate and close friend of nearly three years, and perhaps most oddly, I had never even discussed it openly with my brother, sister or father.
Because I was ashamed – and though I try hard not to be, I think in some ways I still am. Sometimes I wonder if depression is just weakness. Sometimes I worry that a person will think I’m faking because they can’t tell, or will be wary of me because they can. And sometimes I just plain can’t handle anyone’s well-meaning concern.
It’s all because of a double standard when it comes to mental illness versus physical illness; a double standard Bell addresses in a comparison I hear from other sufferers all the time: the diabetes and insulin analogy. Whilst depression is arguably more complex, and our understanding of it less complete, than diabetes, the reason this comparison is effective is down to how cut-and-dry diabetes is. People get diabetes. They know it needs treating and there’s no argument to be had about it. You can live with it, you can manage it, but you have to take it seriously.
Kristen Bell has a successful career, is a mother, a wife and – let’s not forget – a Disney princess. When someone living as publicly as her can be frank about her struggles, it works to demystify depression. It teaches us not to make assumptions about what our co-workers may or may not be capable of; not to judge the legitimacy of our friends’ illness based on how weepy they appear; and not to be afraid that our children’s personalities will be irrevocably altered by the treatment that could save their life.
In conclusion, I love Kristen Bell and she makes me want to be braver. I love her pragmatism and her lack of bullshit. I love that she’s not afraid to take care of herself and not afraid to talk about it. Oh and I also love sloths.
Writing this post feels a little more intimate than any other so far. It’s easy enough to talk abstractly about how I sometimes feel, or give you a retrospective account of the ugly bits. Writing it down – instead of saying it out loud – feels like one big safe step removed from total honesty, and doing so after the fact feels like two. But I didn’t start this blog just to cop out when the subject matter – my life, the light and dark – gets uncomfortable to talk about. I wanted to say things that were difficult to say, so, today, WE’RE LIVE from my parents’ dining room, where I’m feeling like a kite in a storm.
The thing is, I haven’t written a word of my novel in nearly two weeks. I haven’t told anybody that.
If you read my inaugural post last month, you may remember these are circumstances I am very not cool with. In fact, I don’t think I can exaggerate how much failing to write fucks with my head. I’m a pragmatic person and when I’m feeling like me, my self-esteem is pretty healthy. But at times like this, all that I am disintegrates, until my self-worth comes downs to one thing – one thing I’m failing at.
I try to tell myself kind things, whether or not I listen. But as days pass and word counts stay fixed, a sort of amnesia sets in. I know the positives are there, I’m sure there was something I was meant to be clinging to, something other than my novel, but it’s lost in the fog. The only thoughts I can still see clearly are mean and shitty.
So now I’m up nights, ridden with anxiety. I won’t go into the wild, paradoxical clusterfuck that is depression and anxiety being such tight buddies, at least not today. Suffice to say they are the most unlikely of friends, and I am not wholly convinced they even like each other. They would be much better off parting ways, and finding friends with whom they have more in common, like, for example, lethargy and mania respectively. But I digress.
My anxious thoughts start with ‘why can’t I write?’ and quickly progress through my joblessness, my lack of exercise, my fibre intake, the laundry I haven’t done, right down to the email I didn’t send and the call to the doctors I didn’t make. I can’t quite remember how this patch of dry skin on my face became so fucking important; all I know is I can’t stop thinking about it. Most of these things probably sound like problems I could solve to you. Yep. They sound that way to me too.
Now I haven’t even opened the word document in days. I’m afraid to. Afraid of freezing again when I reach for the keys. Afraid of such a disconnect with my own work that I don’t feel like the next sentence is mine to write. Afraid of realising I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking, and that I’m not actually a writer at all.
This is my depression. It’s tangled up in a sort of ‘achievement’ compulsion I don’t know how to control. Other peoples’ may be tangled in something far denser, more unknowable, and perhaps so widespread, so pandemic, that it touches every part of their life and every thought in their mind. I used to feel like that – like I was swallowed up – but I don’t anymore, which is why I believe this too will pass; that I’ll be okay.
This is only a snapshot. It’s not the whole picture, which is far too complex for me to unravel in a blog post. Besides, I can’t see it all myself. I can recognise my patterns and my triggers, the negative thoughts that help put me where I am now, and I can try and make sense of it. But the truth is, I don’t know why I have depression when other people don’t, and that fact is painful in ways I can’t describe.
It just so happens it is Depression Awareness Week, so consider this post my contribution to the cause. If there’s one thing I hope you take away from it, it’s this: depression doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t care how good or bad things are. It doesn’t care that you’ve written half of your novel and you should be so frickin’ proud of yourself. It’s the product of a broken mind, one which can receive all the correct data – a perfect Sunday, a feel-good film, your words of encouragement – but will process it through whichever faulty channel it chooses that day. You cannot reason somebody out of their depression, but you can try to understand, and that will make all the difference.
You’ve played Candy Crush, right? You’ve probably completed a few hundred levels, and worn that number like a badge of honour (read: shame) in front of your less accomplished friends. It’s probably got more competitive than you ever imagined rearranging confectionary could. Unlocking those next ten levels has been like the frickin holy grail. You’ve strategized; you’ve thought as many as six or seven moves ahead to try and get that five in a row. You’ve experienced the anxiety of waiting to see if your set piece plays out like you hope it will, when you have one move left on a level you’ve failed sixty-three times already. You’ve lusted for the old days, the simpler times of level twenty-eight, when you still knew that joyous satisfaction of watching glossy little candies pop and rain down. Because the truth is, it stopped being fun two hundred odd levels ago. Now you just have to get higher up that map.
Well, Candy Crush is everything mindfulness is not. Delete it, and send all records of your progress to the data graveyard.
Because when you’re constantly thinking about your next ten moves and looking ahead to those higher levels, you’re missing this moment, and you can’t enjoy what you’re not present for. Mindfulness is about matching to goings on in your mind with the goings on around you. It’s about bringing yourself into the present. It’s about sitting down and just eating the candy, because dammit, that’s what it’s there for.
Meditation is like deleting the Candy Crush in your brain – the unending stream of ‘what’s next’; the backlog of spent emotions over what’s already in the past – so that all you have left is the candy. Pretty sweet (I’ll see myself out).
Or, that’s the idea. If you read my March 29 post, you will know it was around this time last year that my depression came back. I was on the home stretch of editing my novel, and my self-imposed deadlines were chipping away at me as they flew by. Stress, anxiety and an unshakeable sense of failure had me feeling like I was falling apart. As well as prescribing medication, my doctor signed me off work with explicit instructions to frickin take it easy.
I had to learn how to stop. Stop doing everything I enforced upon myself to feel like I was achieving something, and be okay with it. I had to learn to be in the moment. So I started meditating.
We are told a lot how mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation are good ways to manage stress and improve our overall mood, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) has been used to help sufferers of recurring depression understand and manage the ways their own thoughts and other stimuli impact their state of mind. Can’t hurt, right? I figured I’d give it a go. With the help of this no bullshit guide from life coach Leo Gura, I started meditating for twenty minutes every day (okay, I’ve missed somewhere between five and eight practices), and here are the findings of my brief, poorly executed, and not the least bit scientific dalliance with meditation.
I’m an assistant deputy in my own brain
I’d like to think the one place I’m in charge is inside my own head. Practically, I know that’s not true, or I wouldn’t have spent three hours playing geography quizzes on Sporcle before I got to writing this post. Nor would I still be mad about the tea bag left in the sink four days ago. But it’s not until I sit down to meditate, and ask nicely if I can take the wheel for twenty minutes, that I realise how little clout I hold up there. Sometimes my mind has been wandering for minutes before I even notice I’ve lost concentration. A lifetime of bad habits is ridiculously hard to break, and it makes me wonder how much more productive, engaged and centred I would be if I could shut off all that noise.
I could use my time more effectively
This revelation probably has little to do with the meditation itself, but is invaluable all the same. If I can find twenty minutes a day to do nothing but stare at the inside of my eyelids, what else could I find time for? Learning French? Running daily? When I think about how little of my day I put to any use whatsoever it makes me cringe. I’ve never missed those twenty minutes. I probably wouldn’t miss another dozen such chunks of time. Have I used them? LOL OF COURSE I HAVEN’T (see previous point).
It’s its own reward
MRI scans have shown changes in brain function after as little as eleven hours of meditation. Well, by this point I’m up to one hundred and twentyish hours, and I don’t feel any different. Or maybe I do. If I was better at being mindful I could tell you for sure.
Either way, I can’t complain about an activity the only objective of which is – essentially – to quit worrying. When I shake out my limbs after a good practice I feel contented and calm, even if it only lasts the five minutes before I get back to work.
I guess I think we should maybe all be doing it?
After twenty-five years of not practising meditation, a year isn’t much to go by. I can’t say I’m underwhelmed by the effects, because I had no expectations. But if I’ve not yet seen the myriad benefits advocates like Gura rave about, at least I’ve learned I have a definite need for what it’s trying to accomplish, and you probably do too. I like it, and I will keep doing it. So, yes, I suppose, to meditation.
This week is a sobering anniversary for me: as of March 27, two days ago, I have been back on antidepressants for one whole year. That’s a new personal best/worst.
You may not know what an antidepressant actually is or what it does, but you can Google that. Here’s what it feels like to take them. Imagine some of the things that put you in a bad place: illness, lack of sleep, a fight with a loved one, a bit of bad news – whatever makes for a shit day. It makes you feel off kilter, like you’re not yourself, so you probably do a few things to correct it. You take a Lemsip, get an early night, talk it out with someone, or just give yourself time to chill out. If you’re depressed, your bad day happens all by itself, and your medication is what helps put you back on an even keel.
You still have peaks, troughs, good days, bad days, and really bad days. You feel and think all the same things. There’s no roadblock before your depressive thoughts, no feeling of artificial calm. You don’t feel drunk or drugged or drowsy. You feel the same, except that you level out at an emotional altitude that feels more comfortable. You feel more like yourself.
Antidepressants are not a cure. They’re not numbing, nor do they give you a high, and they absolutely, categorically, do not change you.
And I’ve been taking them now for a year, which comes with some complicated feelings, and has got me thinking about everything it means and doesn’t mean.
It doesn’t mean I’m the most unwell I’ve ever been.
The first time I relented to a prescription for antidepressants, I had been severely depressed for nearly two years, and to medicate myself felt like a defeat. It wasn’t until that medication helped me make some drastic changes that I realised I was outrageously, dangerously wrong. Doing something to help yourself is never a defeat. It’s empowering, and simply knowing you made a good decision is sometimes enough to start making a difference. The only reason I’m now at twelve months and counting is because I was vigilant this time around. I recognised the signs early on and I acted on them, and that makes me want to embrace this anniversary. For one whole year, I’ve been taking care of myself.
It doesn’t mean I’ve been sad for a year.
Within the last year, I have been happy, and I have felt like myself, but never for long enough to consider phasing out the antidepressants. I can’t tell you how tempting it is sometimes, when the sun is out or I’m feeling great about myself, to pronounce myself well and set about putting this episode behind me. I’m so ready for that day, but then I take a turn and I’m reminded what the consequence might be if I jump the gun. It’s a major reason I can’t let this one-year thing scare me – there’s no reason to rush.
It doesn’t mean I’ll never come off them.
For a long time, I thought my tousle with depression was in my past; a blip on what was otherwise sure to be a happy and healthy life. Even when I relapsed in my final year of university, when I was writing my dissertation and putting myself under intense pressure, I told myself anyone would be depressed under the circumstances – this one doesn’t count. Only recently have I come to realise that it may be a part of who I am, always.
I’d love to tell you I’m okay with this; that I’m learning to accept it. But I can only hope that will someday be true. As it stands, I still get really fucking angry about it sometimes. I can’t consolidate the person I think I am and the woman with depression, and I don’t want to. I guess that’s the way with all chronic illness, mental or physical. There’s a lot more to be said along this vein, so look out for a future post on the subject.
One thing I do know is that I can, and will, be depression-free and off the meds, even if another episode is just one faulty step ahead.
It does mean something’s got to give.
My circumstances are difficult right now. Excessive amounts of uncertainty have always been a big factor in my low periods, and right now I don’t know what next month is going to look like, let alone the rest of 2016. It feels like I’m in a transitional period with no forward momentum – I’m stuck in gridlock, and my depression is just loving it. It’s a difficult cycle to break, but as long as I can stay afloat, protect my house of cards, and stay open to change, then change will come. It’s a hopefulness I never imagined I could have my first time round the track, and one I know I couldn’t maintain right now without medication. So I’m not going to stress over my first full year on antidepressants. I’m going to let this anniversary pass, and try to be okay with it.
And readers! If you think you could benefit from medication, please don’t be afraid. There’s a lot of stigma around antidepressants that has no business being there. I can’t tell you if you’re a good candidate, only a doctor can, but if you have any questions, visit the contact me page and I will try and answer them.
Feeling like you have your shit together is a house of cards. It’s comprised of the ways you judge whether you’re adulting successfully. The foundation is maybe your job or your stable relationships, on top of which sits your bank balance, perhaps, and your holiday plans, then your achievable fitness goals and your unintimidating to-do list, and so on. It’s whatever supports your self-worth and your sense of inner peace. If the structure is sound and has many storeys, then you can stand at the top (this is where my clever analogy starts to break down – don’t try to stand on a house of cards, just go with it) and look down on your life and say to yourself: ‘yes, I have my shit together’.
Poor mental health is your obnoxious younger brother who wants to scatter your cards purely because you worked so hard to assemble them. Sometimes you can protect your card house pretty well, but the rest of the time your safest bet is to build it smaller, and stack it with less important cards; lower the stakes.
For me, right now, having my shit together means a few very easy, low stake things. I get up between 8.30 and 9.30. I drink a glass of warm lemon water and it wakes me up (says science. I feel like the gallon of tea I chase it with probably helps). On a good day I rattle off 500 words – my daily target – give myself a high five and make porridge (side note: my love of porridge is legit ruining my life. How am I ever supposed to beat the blues back into remission when the best part of my day, my favourite thing, happens at breakfast? It’s all downhill after porridge). On a less good day I break my target into chunks and reward each with more tea, and eventually porridge if it’s taking that long. Sometime in the afternoon I do some yoga or some cardio (I love this website, because poor people don’t gym), I do some housework, I read, and I write in my journal, and once I’ve done all those things I usually feel somewhere in the range of ‘okay-well-today-hasn’t-been-a-total-disaster’ to ‘that-was-pretty-successful-good-going-Hannah’. The remaining hours allow room for spontaneity, socialising, and Netflix (since I’m being honest, probably not in that order).
A lot can be said for routine, for me anyway. It’s a red flag system. It provides me with a measure, day to day, of how I’m doing, so if anything changes or gets too hard, I spot it early. I’ve had to cut back on what I expect of myself, and as I go through my ups and downs, I reassess and adjust accordingly. When I really have my shit together, I’ve been applying for part-time work (unsuccessfully, so far) and working on other writing projects, but recently, the above is how my house of cards looks.
But then a slump happened.
First I lost the 500 words. That’s the foundation of my house of cards. Being productive creatively has a mainline to my self-esteem, because let’s be honest: if I’m not writing this novel then I really am just an unemployed 25-year-old living with her parents. But one day, just over a week ago, my brain locked me out. It started doing a lot of wallowing and panicking, and it wouldn’t let me back in to talk it through – and I noped out. Then everything else came tumbling down.
Texting back? Nope.
Errands? Nopity nope.
Fresh air? Absolutely not.
Porridge? Well … yes, go on then.
These are things I do to look after myself, to avoid this type of spiral, but as soon as it starts to feel like going through the motions, I realise all over again that how together my shit is isn’t always going to be in my control – and that’s depression. Sometimes I simply can’t try so hard, and maintain this semblance of routine so rigorously.
Something like motivation has started to seep back in in the last few days, and although I haven’t gone back to my novel yet, I did start this blog. I battened down the hatches and waited out the slump, without freaking out the way I sometimes used to. Because it happens. Depression makes your house of cards wobble, and sometimes it makes it fall, and all you can do is take a deep breath, acknowledge it, and start putting it back together.
I just need to find a stronger adhesive than porridge.