Thursday, 20 March 2014

Climbing out of the fog

I've been meaning to write my story for a while now. I even have about 6 different drafts in my blog post section. The problem with all of those drafts is that they were written at a time of either illness or recovery from illness and, although this post is predominantly about my 12 year run of battling with depression and anxiety, I wanted to be able to put the focus on the recovery I made and not the pain that I experienced.

All in all, I want this post to be one of inspiration and hope. Although it is about depression, it's not governed by it. I have spent too much of my life ruled by that disease and, now that I am finally free of it, I have no desire to dwell on that time again.

Having said that, possibly as a way of closure, but mostly as a way of encouragement to any of you who might be experiencing similar issues, I wanted to share my story with you all here. Mainly because, in my humble opinion, what has happened to me in the past year has been so miraculous, there has been a small part of me who has been waiting for the other ball to drop. I feel confident enough now however to believe that that time is behind me. I have moved to a new place in my life and achieved a sense of happiness that I have little to no memory of experiencing before.

Up until the end of last year, I had been on various types of antidepressants and sleeping medication since I was 18 years old. I saw several therapists, psychologists and specialists, as well as had regular fortnightly appointments with my GP. I would classify the beginning of my depression being from around 16 years old. Throughout the course of my depression, I have experienced self-harm, suicidal thoughts, feelings of worthlessness, a lack of interest in anything around me, anxiety attacks, drastic weight loss, drastic weight gain, self-isolation from friends and family, over-clinginess to friends and family, and, the one constant thing throughout it all, an all-consuming and completely crushing weight on my chest, pressing down morning, noon and night.

Depression has been a part of my life for so long that I simply don't remember a time when it wasn't the only thing that I could focus on. It was there, even in happier times. It ran my body and emotions completely. It left me knackered and frustrated, convinced that there was no way out. Throughout it all I managed to find two things that I could cling to, to make it that little bit more bearable, and that was comedy and writing. At first I coped through watching countless comedy shows and films. I can quote any episode from That 70's Show, as for about 2 years, it was the only thing that could put me at a calm enough mood to be able to get to sleep at night. As the years went on, it became more about creating my own stories. I wrote plays, short stories and novels, and then, in 2011, I created this blog which has proved to be more therapeutic to me than any of the other things combined.

Everything has been about my goal of reaching a state of content within my own skin. I remember trying to explain to a friend, a few years back, what depression was like. We were sitting in his car, and I was trying to explain to him why it was that this had been the first invite in a series of about 8 that I had accepted. I hadn't made up excuses for my previous declines, I had simply said that to be around large groups of people would have made me so anxious and on edge, I would have just had to escape out the back door five minutes in, anyway. That day, I had accepted his invitation, feeling a little more comfortable with leaving the house. However, I was still battling with this overwhelming need to just crawl into a ball and not talk to anyone. The weight on my chest was exceptionally heavy that day, and it had only been down to a fear of losing this friend if I declined him once more, that I had brought myself out. I explained to him that I was going to try really hard to be sociable but things felt particularly crappy, and I wasn't sure how well I was going to take everything.

My friend asked me what had happened to make things so crappy that day. I told him that there wasn't any particular thing. I explained that, as I understood it, most people would wake up of a morning and feel generally neutral about their day, and it would take an outside source or incident to determine how their mood is. For me however, I tend to wake up and already feel lost and sad. My day usually consists of trying to achieve that neutral feeling that most people start with. I remember my friend looking at me, completely baffled. He said that he couldn't imagine that, and that it made no sense for someone to feel sad without a reason to feel it. I simply smiled at him and said "That's what I've been telling myself for the past 10 years, but there you are."

The problem that I have had with writing this post is that there is so much to cover, it's been hard to limit it all to one particular article that's easy to read. I wanted to make it clear that things sucked for me for a long time, and without any real reason, if you look at my outside circumstances. My actual life has always been a generally happy one. I have an amazing family, amazing friends, and although money has never been something I've had a lot of, I've always had just enough to get by each month. It doesn't suck at all, in fact it's pretty great. The friends aspect of my life has changed the most throughout the last decade, and has been the most heartbreaking for me, but I have always had others to fall back on, and have learnt so much from the mistakes I have made. Despite all that however, having depression meant that I was not only unable to fully appreciate these things, but that I wasted  and even abused them, regularly. I look back at my 20s and I get angry to think that depression has stolen the majority of it. I made good decisions and have happy memories in this time, but any big decisions that should have been made, ones that would have improved my life for the better, were not made. Every time I started on a path that might bring me some form of happiness and move me forward in my life, I quickly went off road and found something else to do.

A very good example of this is this blog. When I started writing in this thing regularly, in 2011, I slowly but surely managed to pick up a steady and loyal following. I adored it. I got involved with other blogs and talked to people all over the world. I even heard from a publisher, interested in turning my blog into a book. Things were happening for me, and instantly I stopped. I backed out and refused to let it continue. I wrote occasionally, but nothing to the extent that I was doing before. This was the attitude that I took for my entire life. I had no problem dreaming, but the moment the dream looked at all like it would happen, I would back out before it could become a reality.

Looking back, I know that a lot of it had to do with my insistence on being the one to put a stop to it, before it had a chance to disappoint me. The first 6 years of my depression, I found myself to be needy, desperate for love and attention, and wore my heart constantly on my sleeve. This opened me up to so much disappointment that, following a particularly nasty breakdown 6 years ago, I started to harden. I hit rock bottom, and found all those heightened emotions that were always all over the place for me, had disappeared. In its place was a level of nothingness that lasted for a very long time. I became incapable of looking forward. I took each day as it came and focused on making every part of me as protected from the outside world as possible.

Outwardly, I became a lot easier to be friends with. I wasn't constantly looking for attention and needing to be around people, creating a seemingly laid back and fairly sarcastic demeanour instead. It was at this time, I met One-And-Only-Daniela and we became friends. Her way of being so awesome and accepting, not to mention ruthless with forcing me to socialise with her, restored my faith in my ability to form relationships with other people. Out of that, I found that I was able to go out and build a happier and more sociable life. We formed a good friendship group at the place we both worked and, out of all the periods of my depression era, that was the most manageable and, dare I say it, happiest.

I moved away from these people after only two years and began my life in London. That was when I started this blog. Things became hard again and, in the most gradual way possible, I found that I was isolating myself from everyone around me. Over the course of the following three years, I stopped socialising with anyone, I stopped writing on this thing, I started going to bed at 7:30pm every night, including weekends, and only ever interacted with those I worked with, and even then it was minimal. I continued down this road until I hit a moment of realisation on 6th May 2013, that completely turned my life around.

On that day, I watched a documentary called Dreams of a Life, on Netflix. It is about a woman called Joyce who lived 10 minutes away from where I live now. She was found in her flat 3 years after she had died. What's more, she was only in her early 30s. Carol Morley, the lady who put together the documentary, was intrigued by Joyce's tale, when the discovery of her body was published in the local paper. The most intriguing things surrounding her death were the following:

1. Despite being dead for three years, the TV was still playing.
2. No one had come to check when bills and rent weren't being paid.
3. There were a pile of wrapped Christmas presents surrounding the body, with tape and extra wrapping paper. Suggesting this had been the last thing she had done before she died.
4. Not one person had reported this woman as missing for the entire three years.

Due to the above facts, Morley decided that she would try and figure out who Joyce was and what her life had been like prior to her death. She began a campaign through advertisements on the sides of taxis and in newspapers, asking for anyone who knew Joyce to come forward. Soon people began to come out of the woodwork and her life was formed.

As shocking as all of this is on its own, what was uncovered next was the bit that terrified me into a need for change. Basically, it was uncovered, that not only was this woman well known by many people, but that she was known as being a highly popular and very likeable woman. Large groups of people came forward and talked about how she was always the life and soul of the party when she was around and how she had always been so friendly and involved in their lives. However, she was also a person who would show up in a certain friendship circle for a period of time quite suddenly, completely immerse herself in their lives, and then, just as suddenly, disappear again for years at a time. Due to this way of living, although people enjoyed her company and couldn't find a bad thing to say about her, she was still able to rot in a flat, on her own, for three years, before anyone even noticed that she had gone.

I watched that documentary, (one that I recommend all people should watch, by the way, follow the link above) and, being the ego-centric person that I am, I couldn't help but see the similarities between her and myself. I have done nothing but move all my life, I jump in and out of social circles all the time, and at that point in my life, I had distanced myself to such an extent that the same fate could very well happen to me. I wasn't quite there. I mean, I lived with people at the time, who would have noticed the smell emanating from my room should I have started to decompose, plus Marmie called me at least once a week, and she would definitely notice if I stopped answering, but if I kept my social pariah act up much longer, this could most definitely be a possibility for me. That concept scared the crap out of me to such an extent, I genuinely couldn't stop shaking for a week after. I became consumed by the fear that I had nothing to show for my life. That I was heading down a road where I hadn't achieved anything worthwhile, both in other people's lives or in my own. And then I became determined that I would not let that happen to me.

Coincidentally, the watching of this movie happened at the same time as I started a new course of therapy. I soon began a weekly session with an awesome therapist, focusing on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. A really quick rundown of this type of therapy is as follows.

1. It looks at behaviours that you might have that are detrimental to you.
2. It looks at the thought pattern that causes these behaviours.
3. It challenges that thought pattern and suggests a new thought pattern to spark off a different behaviour.

That's basically it. It seems really simple, but believe it or not, this entirely simple method is the thing that brought me out of 12 years of depression. I met with this therapist for a total of four months, once a week. I cried, I argued with her. I would tell her something I had done, she would ask me why I felt the need to do it, I would explain my thought pattern and then she would suggest a new way of thinking about it. This was almost always followed by my adamantly arguing against her idea for a whole hour, and then a day later thinking about it and realising "Damn, she's right." Guaranteed, every week that would happen.

She set me goals and I worked really hard to make sure I did them.

1. I had to start making plans to see people, which included staying up later than 7:30pm. 
I made plans once a week to see One-And-Only-Daniela after work. I began accepting her invites to go shopping and have barbeques in the weekend. All of which, she couldn't quite believe as I'm certain she was about five seconds away from giving up on me altogether, and I don't blame her. Out of that, I found I was waking up of a morning with a smile, I had good memories forming in my life and funny jokes to remember.

2. I had to begin to make active plans in favour of my dreams, forcing them into reality rather than just fantasy.
I decided that I would stop talking about publishing my book and publish it. I did it and was overwhelmed by the positive feedback I received from people who read it, automatically feeling affirmed in my writing, which is my biggest dream.

3. When a rubbish thing was happening, I had to try and consider a possible solution, rather than focusing on all the reasons why it sucked in the first place. 
I decided to give up on my plan to go to America. I had made the plan to leave for 6 months and do a course over there, based on the success of someone else doing it. However, it was never really my dream and was an idea that was formed out of a time where I was grasping at straws to find something to aim for. As I reached closer to the time of leaving, it wasn't working out financially for me and I was beginning to freak out about the whole thing. I was afraid that cancelling my plans however would be seen as a failure, which was unacceptable to me, so I was afraid to do it, even though staying in England made far more sense to me than anything else. But I finally made the decision to do it, and the moment I announced to everyone that I wasn't going anymore, I had never felt more relieved in my life.

4. And most importantly, I had to stop being so freakin' hard on myself all the time. I had to stop thinking that guilt was my go to reaction for any of my faults. I had to make mistakes and not freak out after I made them, but rather shrug my shoulders and say, 'Oh well, it happens'. 
The overriding factor throughout my depression, and the thing that has ruled my emotions, is guilt. I could find ways of feeling guilty over anything. I would pick apart every conversation I had and obsess over each and every one of my responses in it. And that was all when I hadn't done anything wrong. When I did do something wrong, oh holy crap did I fall hard. I had no problem excusing all the people around me for anything they had done. I found it really hard to hold a grudge against anyone. But for me to do anything that might be offensive to any way of living? That was completely unacceptable. I had grown up in a Christian household and, although they were accepting of my mistakes, I had somehow managed to warp the rules of the bible and church in general into the be all and end all should I ever disobey them. Looking back, the only person throwing condemnation on me was myself. And when others had, it was usually because I had forced them to look at me that way. The worst part about it all was that most of the things I managed to feel guilty for weren't anything that anyone should feel guilty for. It was only my own high standards of myself that determined that. So I began to allow myself to be imperfect and make mistakes, and when the tirade of guilt began to fall in, I would force myself to look at the situation as if I were looking at someone else doing the same thing, and realise that there is nothing to feel guilty about. I would then shrug and say "Oh well, it happens."

Obviously, this only works for things that actually aren't really detrimental to other people, and more to do with us being human. I'm pretty certain that should I do something awful like chop someone's leg off just to watch them bleed, I would allow myself to feel suitably guilty over that.

And that's how I did it guys. I know it seems small and inconsequential. I will never be able to portray the gratitude that I feel towards my therapist and that CBT course. I also am a full advocator for it. I believe that anyone who is governed by their own thoughts, and is letting them rule their emotions, needs to just try it out. However, you also need to be ready to really try what they suggest. If I had gone and listened to her suggestions, then never put them into actions, I'd still be living the same life that I was living this time last year. However, because I was open to the change that needed to happen, my life has changed monumentally.

I wanted to tell people about my story because, although I can pinpoint the beginning of my recovery to the day, and also document the exact things that caused me to be able to recover, I think we can all agree that nothing really that spectacular had to occur in order for it to happen. The hardest part of my recovery was the initial gearing myself up to do the things that changed me. When I actually did them, I found that I was able to do them easily. I was also amazed by how much they changed my life.

I spent 12 years in a fog that ruined my 20s. I look back and it looks muggy and sad. I think of the opportunities I didn't grasp hold of and the friendships that my illness caused me to ruin, and it saddens me. It also maddens me. However, as of September 2013, I stopped taking medication for the first time in 10 years. I waited for the backlash of this, and found nothing. I began to see the world around me clearly and worked on striving for positive things in my future. I actively searched for friendship and put myself out there, knowing full well that I could be setting myself up for disappointment. I have made mistakes. I have done stupid things and I have not been perfect. I have also found that this is okay. I wake up in the morning now with that neutral feeling straight away. When I do something that is leaving negative imprints on myself, I actively change it.

Most importantly, I have also had bad days. Sad things have happened and I have been affected by them. But instead of letting that sad feeling settle within me, I have immediately thought of ways that can pick me up. My sad days, as crippling as they may still be, only last a couple of days, and then my happiness is back. It's in these moments that I am most grateful. I don't know if people who have found happiness an easy thing, ever take it for granted, (probably not, as they see it as another thing to be happy about) but for a person who had looked at those people with such envy for all of her adult life, I don't think I will ever take for granted that happy feeling again.

Also, as a way of inspiring those who are waiting for their lives to start before they will feel the happiness they need, don't wait. My life is probably the most stagnant it has ever been. I am living in a room completely filled with boxes because I have too much in it to unpack, I barely have enough money to get by every month, I spend the majority of my free time watching sci fi programmes on netflix... there really isn't that much going on for me at the moment. But I'm happy. And out of that happiness, I'm finding the determination to make plans for the better. I'm writing more, I'm getting more involved in social activities and am looking at finding more and more things that will enrich my life. All it takes to start making changes in your life, is you. I appreciate that it seems hard, I know how hard it is. I also realise that the way I found to get better is not one that would necessarily work for you.

However, I wanted to share my story as a way of inspiring hope into any broken hearts. It is possible to get out of this. It can be done. All that is needed from you is the initial ask. Seek help, most effectively from professionals, and find the therapy that works for you. There will be trial and error involved. Goodness knows, I've tried out a few before I found the one that works for me. But the most important thing is never ever suffer any of it in silence. Don't allow your demons to be the only thing that you have to confide in. Bring others in and find happiness anywhere you can. Be it through a secret love of yours for puzzles, music, writing etc, or in the joy of escaping to a happier place in watching comedies. Whatever it is, find it and use it. Get through your day as well as you can, and make plans for your tomorrow. Don't focus on the end result as it could be too big to contemplate. Focus on today, focus on this week. Make plans for a weekend and give yourself something to look forward to.

I don't know if this helps. I hope it does. I want anyone struggling to know that I had no hope I would ever be able to live a life without depression. I thought I would only be able to find a way of living it despite it. Somehow, I've done it though and the joy it's brought me, the confidence and happiness and want to go out and make something of my life as per how I want to do it, rather than what is expected of me, is something I thought I'd never experience. Please don't despair. Don't feel lost. There is always hope, no matter how long you've struggled with it, I should know.

Peace out my lovelies.

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