Open letter to the Portsmouth News: please don’t trivialise depression

I still blush when I think of some of the things I did and wrote when I was political editor at the Portsmouth News (2006-2007) – the Lord knows, I’ve had my fair share of letters of complaint to the editor. But hand on heart, I don’t think I ever wrote anything quite as irresponsible as Clive Smith’s column that belittles depression Feeling Down? Grit Your Teeth And Get On With Life (I would give you the link, but that page on the website appears not to be working).  
As someone who has battled clinical depression for the past five years, reading this column really sucks. It makes me more depressed hearing my condition described as a ‘bandwagon’ – because nobody chooses to have depression. Clive writes: “These days some people are wearing the depressed label like it’s the latest designer tag…Bipolar seems to be all the rage at the moment.”
I can’t really fathom what Clive is trying to say with this column. It’s a bit insulting to people who have depression and bipolar disorder. Surely he doesn’t really mean that there are “all these fake miseries” pretending to have depression? Because who would do that, and why? Is depression really “a badge of honour”?
Whatever he is trying to say, it’s clumsy, and it’s backfired. As an ex-journalist, I know only too well that the point of newspaper columns is to get people talking and engaging with the newspaper. But this is going too far. Clive, look what happens to columnists like Katie Hopkins who court controversy as a career choice: people literally turn their backs on you.
The most unpleasant thing about this column is the total lack of human empathy. I would say to HR people at the Portsmouth News: I hope Clive’s column does not reflect your attitude towards staff. One in four of them will experience a mental health problem every year. You need to help them understand and overcome these illnesses, otherwise you’ll lose out, in decreased productivity through increased sick leave.
As an ex-journalist, I would say to the editor: Looking for headlines? Why not write about the number of suicides in Pompey and Hampshire? Suicide is the biggest killer of young men today – is that not something worth investigating and talking about, campaigning on even, as newspapers are supposed to do, to use their influence to make the world a better place?
That would be a much more responsible approach than Clive saying: “Buck up boys and quit the moaning. It’s getting boring.”

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Happy

The sound of the rain hammering down wakes me from a pleasant dream. I stretch – snug, warm, safe. It’s grey outside but sunshine inside, for me. I’m happy.

Nervously, I scan my body, hardly daring to allow these delicious sensations to wash over me. Joy bubbles up beneath my breast like a brook. It’s effervescent, sparkling like sunset, rippling and pooling on lapping waves.

I throw back the duvet and sit on the dog cushion, cradling Bindy. She grunts in contentment as I stroke behind her ears.

Realising this is the happiest I’ve been all year, I hug myself. I actually wrap my arms around my own two shoulders and squeeze tight, smiling. I’m so proud.

This week I’ve been studying the brain’s emotion regulation systems. So I know that it is endorphins and oxytocin that are surging through my veins. (I’ve got an addictive personality, so what better high to be hooked on?)

With the help of a psychologist, I’ve been training my mind in, with and for compassion. It’s resulted in some astonishing breakthroughs these past few days.

In my dreams, my teeth have fallen out; I’ve ridden up an escalator, and run from a tidal wave. All of these are signifiers from my subconscious – telling me I’m embarking on a new era of personal development, achieving a higher level of consciousness, and able to watch my emotions, instead of being engulfed by them.

It’s testament to one hell of a lot of hard work. I’ve given up booze and most caffeine for eight weeks, started training with weights, running 5ks and embarked on an intensive CBT course to confront my dormant demons of shame, disgust, fear, misery. I’ve spent hours and hours in mindfulness meditations, basking in that elusive inner peace.

And now the final jigsaw piece slots into place. Everything – all the pain, the anguish, the heartache – has been leading up to now. A gathering point, not a vanishing point. I’m learning to love myself for the first time in 38 years.

It’s common for people with under-developed soothing and contentment systems to shy away from the first flush of re-discovered happiness. To feel as if they don’t deserve it. And I’m kind of stunned that as a sufferer of PMDD, especially at this point in my monthly cycle, the hormone that’s governing me is oxytocin, not oestrogen.

So I hope you’ll forgive me for blowing my trumpet, and join with me in celebrating this very unusual state of affairs: my happiness.

I have made these changes in my body, by reprogramming the way I think. Not a doctor, not a pill, but me, myself, I. Taking even tiny decisions, little choices, to care for myself and love myself have incredible power to make me feel good. Not instantly, but in the long run, over time.
No longer am I the prisoner of my own emotions and hormones. I am potent, fertile, sorceress; mistress of my own destiny. I am free.

My guardian angel is a little old lady

Wow. Just – wow! I’ve just done the most incredible mindfulness meditation in the zen garden. It was only 10 minutes long, but it’s profoundly changed my outlook on life.

I’d just read a letter sent in error by the credit card people. My mind was jangling. I knew I could fix things with a phone call, but I wanted to do a meditation first so that I could handle things serenely, rather than getting stressed.

I sat down, closed my eyes, and met my guardian angel – for the second time, as it turns out.

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The meditation invited me to imagine a bad time in my life. I thought of the prison cell I was held in for 10 hours, when I was wrongfully arrested, imprisoned, and charged with something I didn’t do. (A few months later, I sued the police who paid me damages of thousands of pounds, but at the time, it was a horrible thing to go through).

I don’t think of that prison cell very often, but today I cast my mind back and remembered lying on the narrow bed, reading a book, I forget which one, just some trashy fiction, offered by a police officer, from cover to cover. Mindlessly, compulsively, scanning the lines, not really taking them in, cold and numb with the horror and shame of finding myself in prison. Frightened, angry. The humiliation of having to do a wee on a steel pot in bright light in front of CCTV, of having my mouth swabbed for DNA.

Next, the meditation invited me to recognise someone walking towards me. It was an old woman I have met before, in another guided visualisation. That time, I met this woman on a desert island in the middle of an ocean after rowing my boat out to the beach. She wore a grey cloak and her eyes blazed like diamonds. She offered me answers to three questions: things will be hard, but I will be the one that sorts things out, and I will do it with the strength that is within me.

This time, she walked towards me again, today. The meditation invited me to let her enter my body and replay the scenes in the prison cell, to see how she would handle it. I watched her sit with a very straight back upon the narrow bed, fold her hands together, and simply wait. Because she knew everything would be all right. (It’s no coincidence that when my therapist once asked me to go back to my younger self and comfort her, I used the words: don’t worry, everything will be all right.)

She was very dignified, peaceful, and relaxed. (When I was arrested, I was shouting and swearing at the police, struggling. Threatening to sue them. One female police officer came and looked at me standing sullenly in a holding cell, and smirked. I was furious.)

The meditation invited me to visualise the old lady handing me a gift that had something written on it. She reached inside her cloak and brought out a ring I lost when I was six years old, that belonged to a great aunt. (I have also seen this ring in another guided visualisation, finding it in a wooden box of treasure upon a sea shore belonging to family holidays of long ago). It was a tiny, rose-gold signet ring. Inside were engraved the words ‘everything is going to be all right’.

She smiled, and took her leave. And I knew who she was. She was Lily, from the Kate Bush song. I’ve written about Lily before, and have met her before, on the desert island, I remember now. Is she my guardian angel? Is she me, as an old lady, coming back to comfort the younger self?

You might think I’m crazy, but I believe in this stuff. I am grateful, happy and relieved to know that someone is looking after me, even it is only a projection of myself I’m seeing, meeting, talking to. She brings me peace, wisdom, love.

I believe that today she taught me how patience, serenity and dignity can help me get through bad times.

And it’s no coincidence that my dog, who I also call my guardian angel (or ‘angel’ for short), was curled up next to me as I did this meditation in the zen garden.

Everything is going to be all right. IMG_0212

Hello, hello – it’s good to be back

I’m sitting in my zen garden with the smell of honeysuckle wafting over me, and life feels just wonderful.

I feel happy – properly happy – for the first time in a long time. The dogs are truffling about in the sunshine, and I’m creating exciting digital content for my freelance work.

Everything has calmed down – I have found peace, and space, and joy.

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Why has all of this come about? Time to blow my own trumpet – some bloody hard work on my part. Having come so close to the edge and been frightened at how ill I have been, I suddenly got determined not to let depression ruin my life.

I ran into money troubles, so I sorted them out. I meditated every day, took Prozac, sat under a SAD lamp. I’ve recalibrated my work-life balance so I can put me first. I haven’t had an alcoholic drink for weeks, cut down on the caffeine, and I’m getting back into the groove with exercise – even doing my first parkrun tomorrow!

I’ve been working with my doctor over the past few months to establish that I suffer from pre-menstrual dysmorphia disorder (PMDD). This is basically a super-charged form of PMT that affects 3-8% of women, it lasts for around 12 days each month. Some women have found it so intolerable that they take their own lives.

I’m lucky in that I have never really felt that bad. But lady hormones on top of depression play some very strange games with my body and brain. I’m meeting my doctor this afternoon to see which out of the 40-odd birth control pills he thinks will best suit my mental health requirements. He’s got me planning my month now, to make sure I am with friends and family when the PMDD is at its worst. Luckily, as freelancer, I can also schedule work at times to suit my cycle.

As well as prescribing exercise, the doctor’s put me on a diet – because white fat produces more oestrogen. Oestrogen is my nemesis, it sends me absolutely doo-lally. It’s honestly like being in the grip of utter insanity. PMDD sufferers can’t function normally when it’s at it’s worst. Lately, I had to cancel my dad’s birthday, cancel meeting my old babysitter who came back from New Zealand on a flying visit, cancel my godson’s camping birthday and cancel the wedding of two dear friends.

So thank you to my doctor for taking me seriously and helping me with a plan to overcome PMDD, plus cyclical depression. Thank you to steps4wellbeing for putting me on a course of CBT that’s due to start soon. Thank you to my friends and family, who have steadfastly supported me as I let them down so I could get space to put my life back together. Thank you to the guys at work, for their support and help to get the job done. Thank you to my housemate, for tending the zen garden, and being a brick. Thank you to the #hamselfie people for sending ham (Healthy Attitudes To Mental Health) selfies to make me smile again. And thank you to me, I suppose, for having the guts to see it through. I’m back. I’m happy 🙂

Today is for healing and hoping

Today, I feel like writing. Today feels like a pause, amid the paralysis and misery and fear. Today feels like maybe a new start, to think of ways to heal.

Of course, today could be like those other days, that start with sunshine and end in tears or rage. But that’s OK. Because at this moment, this precious, single moment in time, I feel like things are going to get better.

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I’ve carved out space, away from friends and family and even my dog, just to be. I don’t think it’s about isolating myself – typical symptom of depression. I simply could not cope with simple everyday interactions. And I needed space to heal.  (Thank you, mum and dad and Miranda and Robert and Bindy. I’ll be back soon).

This space is quiet, bright, and gentle. It allows a peace to wash over me, like a summer breeze. It turns my thoughts to healing. And loving, and living.

This illness is invisible to me, too. I’m surprised and scared at its power to lay waste to judgement, energy, joy and reason. I’ve been very frightened at the blackness. One wrong step and I’m lost. But I’ve been here before, and climbed out. So there’s hope. Now, it’s time to step up.

I can’t allow depression to ruin me. Today, and the next day, and the day after that, I can make decisions to get well again. I’ve got some professional help on my side – the guys at steps2wellbeing have referred me to a CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) course. It helped me five years ago. I’m sure it will help me again.

There’s a condition though – I have agreed to stop drinking, as this will seriously hamper my chances of recovery. Apparently, binge drinking whilst on anti-depressants renders them useless – I might as well be chucking my Prozac in the bin. So, no booze. Here goes. Wish me luck

19 Reasons Why I’m Such A Totally Awesome Rock Star

Seeing as I’m applying for jobs at the moment, I thought everyone would benefit from a quick recap on why I’m such a totally awesome rock star.

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  • Lost half a stone since New Year
  • No fags for nearly a month (thanks to the e-cig)
  • Given up drinking (not a good mixer with Prozac)
  • In the last four months, I’ve survived a messy break-up, a house move, and a nervous breakdown
  • I still believe in myself 100%
  • There should be a picture of me under ‘resilience’ in the dictionary (direct quote from my therapist)
  • I do a mindfulness meditation every day
  • I’m building a little zen garden in my head
  • This blog brings hope and comfort to other people who have depression. I know this, because they tweet/Facebook/email me
  • This blog brings me hope and comfort to me, when I read it back
  • I was asked to write a piece about my journey with depression in a new magazine
  • I’ve been reading some awesome self-help books. I thoroughly recommend How To Grow Up, by Michelle Tea
  • I got a rebate on my council tax (Yessssssssss!)
  • Some seriously good people have endorsed me on LinkedIn
  • I inspired someone at work today 🙂
  • I made someone else laugh
  • I did my tax return in January (this may have triggered my nervous breakdown)
  • I am so thankful for all of the above
  • That’s it, for now
  • Bye!

Lily and the Rubberband Girl

This morning I opened the door, looked my demon in the eye, and invited him in. A dread swept over me. I held his gaze, and, watching, saw him open up a cavity in my chest, beneath my breast.

Well I said Lily, oh Lily I don’t feel safe. I feel like life has blown a great big hole through me.

My whole body echoed with the terrible space gaping inside me. My limbs were heavy, dragged down. Inside I was falling and aching. Before, my mind collapsed in on itself, unable to hold me up in the face of this awful, nagging nothingness.

And she said: child, you must protect yourself. You can protect yourself, I’ll show you how with fire.

But now, I know that I can draw a magic circle round myself, to keep the demons out and the guardian angels in.

Gabriel before me, Raphael behind me. Michael to my right, Muriel on my left side in the circle of fire

That circle is a little white picket fence, snaking round the greenest of grass, lush, sweet-smelling, and verdant. I don’t know what else is in the zen garden yet, apart from peace, and love, and space. Just me and my little dog are here, where we’re safe. In time, we’ll be playing, laughing, running, seeing trees bend in the wind, landing with our feet firm on the ground.

A rubberband bouncing back to life, a rubberband bend the beat. If I could learn to give like a rubberband, I’d be back on my feet

Kate Bush Rubberband Girl