On mental health and the importance of talking

Today is World Mental Health Day. These events are designed to encourage people to talk about mental health and reduce the stigma around mental illness. But for all the publicity and the increase in celebrities talking openly about their issues, there is still a stigma around depression, anxiety and other disorders.

Last year that stigma prevented me from going to a doctor and talking about my own problems with anxiety and depression until it had reached a chronic state. This was despite dealing with close family members and colleagues who experienced similar issues in the recent past and understanding how important it is to talk about these problems.

The fact is that I was, and still am, embarrassed to  talk about it. I’m a very logical person and I find it hard to come to terms with the fact that I can be crippled with anxiety and depressed (one usually follows the other with me) for seemingly illogical and mundane reasons. So to turn around and talk about those problems is very difficult. It feels like a weakness, a failing, like I’m screwing up by not being able to cope with problems at work or the little stresses of daily family life.

Yet the logical part of my brain keeps reminding me that it’s normal, it’s an illness, lots of people go through this and it’s all just a physical chemical response to various external pressures over the last 3 years. It’s really infuriating. I understand what is happening to me and I believe I know what the causes are and how I need to improve things. But my body doesn’t seem to listen.

I’ve been taking Sertraline for about a year now. It’s a fairly common anti-depressant which, despite some wacky side effects like incredibly vivid dreams, appears to have levelled out my anxiety to a much more manageable level. So much so that I tried coming off it for a couple of months over the summer, but sadly the symptoms of uncontrolled fear returned after a few weeks and I made the decision to go back on the pills for a bit longer.

Despite the medication I still find that some days I will have a feeling of general anxiety rising in the pit of my stomach. Or I’ll feel a bit down for a day or two. Often this will be followed by a cold or some other physical illness. Almost like my body gets distracted dealing with the early symptoms of a virus and forgets to deal with the long term mental illness for a few days.

I’ve also noticed that despite the improvement in my general mood the illness has robbed me of a lot of my confidence. I’ve always been a bit of an introvert but could blag my way through social situations, presentations at work and even stand on stage with a guitar in front of not very many people (the bands I’ve played in were always under appreciated by local audiences). Now I find myself feeling scared to approach new situations or even attend events like large family gatherings, friend’s parties or music gigs. I manage to force myself to get along to most things and once there I think I bluff my way through well enough, but it’s tiring. Hopefully over time I can recover some of that self-confidence I’d grown over the years.

So things are OK in general, thanks to the medication, some changes in circumstance (moving job helped a lot), an increase in exercise and of course the initial decision to talk to my family and a GP about my problems rather than try to fix things myself and hope it would pass.

If you’re suffering from any kind of mental health issue, no matter how severe, it really does help to talk about it. Even just talking anonymously to other sufferers on the internet can be the first step you need to recovering from the illness. Sites like No More Panic and the depression and anxiety subs on Reddit offer lots of sympathetic ears if your own support network is lacking, or you just don’t want to talk face to face yet.

I guess I just want to say for World Mental Health Day and every day remember, it gets better, it can affect any of us and please try to talk about it.

Looking after yourself

I haven’t written a piece for the blog for what seems like months. Probably because it has been months. The truth is I don’t know what to write here anymore. I’ve started a few pieces only to delete them after they’ve sat unfinished for weeks. It’s not that I haven’t been doing anything to write about; I’m still cooking (although much less since my daughter was born), still playing music (although much less since my daughter was born) and still running and cycling (although… well… you get the idea). I’m also writing poetry and fiction and have managed to pick up a few more small interests which could make for interesting blog topics.

My problem is that there’s a whopping big elephant in the room. Before I can get back to writing about the hobbies that really interest and excite me, I feel like I should write about the big issue I’ve been trying to overcome for the last year. Since the middle of 2015 I’ve been treated for anxiety and depression.

But you know what? I’m not going to. I’ve been feeling like I owe it myself and others to go into a detailed post writing about my journey through this illness. The truth is I don’t. I don’t owe it to anyone to make myself ill again by going over the ground that got me here in detail.

Instead I’m going to say this. If you feel under pressure. If you feel stressed. If your little ball of occasional anxiety is growing every day until you dread going to work, seeing friends or doing the things in life you enjoy. If you feel down and don’t know why. If you feel down and you do know why! Talk to someone. Do what you can to get help and take it when it’s offered.

Talk to those closest to you and don’t just assume they know what’s going on and understand. It can take some explaining, but it’s absolutely worth doing so they can support you through this.

The best advice I can give anyone though is to look after yourself. Find a sport or hobby that you want to do, anything that keeps you fit and gets you active a couple of times a week. If you don’t already do something, try something. Don’t assume you can’t do something because you have to be a certain level of fitness. Everyone has to start somewhere and you’ll be amazed at the improvement in your personal fitness you can see in the first few months of trying a new hobby.

Take time out and relax. Get outside and sit in the sun or walk along a beach. Read a book in your garden with a glass of wine.

Eat well and eat balanced. Treat yourself only occasionally (but do treat yourself) and cut down on booze. All these things, exercise, diet, physical fitness and mental health are intrinsically linked. While it can be hard to juggle everything, if you find that you’re completely ignoring aspects of your health it will end up impacting your overall welfare.

Look after yourselves. Don’t keep problems bottled up. Get help if you need it.

Reflections on 2015

The Christmas tree is back in its box. The decorations have been gathered from their vantage points around the house and the first work shirts of 2016 have been ironed ready for the return to the office this week. As I wait out the last few days and hours of the Christmas holidays I’ve been reflecting on the year that’s just passed and what it means for the year to come.

One thing about the year to come… it can only improve from this point! My adorable daughter picked up an awful cold just before Christmas which of course she then passed on to my wife and I. Which means that the first time in about 8 years that I’ve not had to work or be on call for work over the festive period I’ve spent mostly in bed ill. Which was nice. Thanks Chloe. Oh and I’ve just lost a game of Trivial Pursuit to my wife for the first time. 2016 is terrible so far!

However that leads me nicely into the biggest event which happened to us in 2015 and it was back in the middle of January. My daughter Chloe was born in the very early hours of a Thursday morning in Aberdeen. We’d started the process the previous morning by driving to the hospital in Montrose, but we’ll just gloss over that (and the terrifying blue lights transfer in gale force winds). Despite her slightly dramatic entry into the world, she is amazing. Every day we see her beautiful soul shine a little brighter as her personality develops and she grows from baby to toddler.

Adjusting to life with a baby hasn’t been easy, although the rewards are immense. I can’t get enough of hearing her laugh or the feeling when she gives me a hug. Still, at times this year has pushed me to breaking point and beyond.

As well as the arrival of our daughter we were also settling into a new house at the start of 2015, having moved to Stonehaven at the end of 2014. The first half of the year also saw me stuck in a job I had tried to get out of for two years without success and the pressure of that started to take its toll. All this added up to a trip to the doctor’s to seek treatment for depression and chronic anxiety.

It’s never easy admitting to mental health issues. I’ve not made a big deal of it or gone public (until now) as it isn’t really anyone else’s business. However as it has been a massive part of the last year for me I felt I should include it in this post. Thankfully, the GP I saw was superb and very understanding which has meant I’ve been able to get most of my issues firmly under control through the second half of the year. I now feel pretty much back to normal 95% of the time, which is fantastic and makes dealing with the rest of life a lot easier. Perhaps in the future I’ll write-up my experience of mental illness in a bit more detail, but for now I’m just glad I can move on.

I mentioned my job earlier. In the summer I was eventually successful in escaping from my previous role and have finally left the front line of corporate IT support. Albeit I’ve just moved to the vendor side of the relationship. I’m now working as a consultant for a Norwegian software house, but it’s a massive change for me and a hugely positive one. I started in the role in August and the first few months have been very enjoyable so far including an eye-opening trip to our head office in Oslo set in idyllic surroundings on the banks of Oslo fjord.

August saw another big challenge – Ride The North. A two day bike ride from Inverness back to Stonehaven via the hilliest road route they could find (or so it seemed). Easily one of the hardest things I have ever done. Possibly the hardest. It was an amazing experience, great fun and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a serious challenge. I also managed to raise over £300 for Home Start UK in the process. I felt very proud of myself as I came down the hill into Stoney. I’ve cycled into the town countless times but it’s rarely been such a relief! That was pretty much it in terms of fitness and adventure for the year as exercise took a back seat to make time for nappy changes!

Although 2015 saw me step back from the blog for a variety of reasons, I carried on writing in other ways. I’ve long been interested in trying more creative forms of writing and had considered an open learning English degree or something similar to stretch myself in that direction. At least I was considering it until I found out how much it was going to cost! Instead I joined the local writers group and have been introduced to a very welcoming and creative bunch of local poets, fiction writers and essayists. Through the group I’ve rekindled an interest in poetry I hadn’t explored since school and have also written a few pieces of short fiction. Some of the work has been published on this blog and I hope to put up a lot more this year.

In terms of other creative work I have pretty much neglected my music. When a baby enters your life it’s inevitable that something has to give and playing, writing and performing music has been the biggest casualty of my hobbies. I might have cut back on running and exercise but I at least can try to make up for that by going to the gym at lunchtime. I’d get some funny looks practicing the mandolin or guitar in the office kitchen…

Music is something I definitely want to pick up again and I have a couple of minor goals for 2016 but I won’t be putting a lot of pressure on myself to get them ticked off. At the moment it’s all about relaxed aims and not forcing myself to do things.

Outside of what I’ve achieved over the last year I’ve had some great trips (Keswick in the summer, Oslo, Aberfeldy for my birthday to see Lau play in a small town hall). Listened to some wonderful music – albums by Lau, Chvrches, Treacherous Orchestra, Olafur Arnalds (collaborating with Nils Frahm and Sarah Ott), Anais Mitchell (just got into her stuff this year) and Rachel Sermanni all stood out for me this year. Star Wars finally got its mojo back with an awesome adventure in The Force Awakens, while on TV Fargo returned for a brilliant second season and I now have a thorough, detailed knowledge of the Cbeebies TV channel.

Other things had a big impact on my year, in particular the awful news in November of the attacks in Paris. While dreadful acts of violence and terror happen all over the world the events in Paris and in particular the assault on the Bataclan concert venue seemed to hit very close to home. I think it’s because Paris is a city I’ve visited in a country I’m incredibly fond of. Also the target of the attack was a rock gig by The Eagles Of Death Metal, a band whose work I have on my iPod, in a venue which one of my favourite bands (Deftones) was due to play the very next day. In fact members of that band were at the gig on the night it was attacked. The victims were my Parisian analogues just out to enjoy a band they liked on a Friday night.

If I have one big theme I want to take out of 2015 it’s that despite some problems I’ve come through it all relatively unscathed and with a fantastic, beautiful family to share it with and support each other. It’s far too easy to put unhealthy amounts of pressure on ourselves these days and while having goals and aims is admirable it should also not be at the detriment of your own health and personal relationships.

The first half of 2015 was a mad, high pressure rush of new baby, mad work situation, cycle training and deteriorating health. While after the summer things calmed down and I was able to step back and find the necessary space to get back on track and enjoy being with my daughter, my new job and being more relaxed about my spare time after Ride The North was over. Hopefully I take that relaxed enjoyment with me into 2016 and beyond.

Happy New Year!

The downside of an always connected lifestyle

I’ve just finished reading an article by Jemima Kiss on the Guardian’s website which really resonated with me. Normally I don’t bother with the comment pieces on the site, skipping to interesting news, sport or the tech, food and culture sections as I spend my lunch time idly catching up on the world. However the title of the piece – Turning off technology is about mental wellbeing – not becoming a digital hermit - fell in line with a thought that’s been in my head for a while now. I used to be happier before the internet.

Now, in general I am quite a happy person. I’ve got a lot going for me including a nice house, wife and newborn child, friends and family; plus plenty of hobbies to occupy myself with. But I’ve found the last couple of years to be a struggle mentally in many ways, the independence referendum was a long emotional journey with a crashing comedown on the day of the result, my career has gone through a number of recent changes with added pressures and then there’s the big life changes that moving back to my home town and a new baby bring. That’s a lot of load to put on a person.

So where does the internet come into this? Why does it specifically make me unhappy when I can weather (mostly, I have my moments) those other pressures? I think it’s partly my own fault – having all that information constantly at my fingertips is too tempting. During the referendum I would be constantly checking twitter for the latest comment or news from the campaigns and as a result I spent most of last year feeling angry all the time. It’s not a nice feeling. Now with the general election I find myself doing the same thing. At least if I just check into the teatime news on TV I only shout at lying politicians once a day, that’s if the TV even reports what’s happening! There I go again…

The other big downer the internet inflicts is that it sucks time from you. I have a lot of hobbies, probably too many if I’m honest as it’s hard to keep up with them, but I really enjoy trying to things and learning new skills so I keep wanting to do more. The ones which get me outside (cycling, running, hillwalking) aren’t a problem; I’m outside, away from my laptop, tablet and often even away from a mobile signal. It’s the hobbies inside that suffer. I absolutely love playing music, writing and learning new songs, but I never seem to find the time. Or I sit down with the laptop to write something and find myself staring at reddit two hours later with a blank word document in another window. The same thing happens when I try to work on this blog, or some fiction writing.  I recently developed an interest in electronics and spent some time putting together some project ideas. Every time I think about getting the circuit boards out I run out of time, but I find plenty of time to sit on the sofa refreshing facebook and twitter or browsing Amazon for more hobbies to neglect.

It gets really frustrating. I know that spending an hour or two writing something new or making some progress on the Arduino powered baby toy I thought of would make me a lot happier for the rest of the day.  I’ve been a gamer all my life but my Xbox went untouched for almost two months, despite me making frequent comments about playing a game while the baby slept. I just never seemed to find a gap to fire it up, yet I spend literally hours at home aimlessly surfing the web.  That’s time I could be shooting terrorists! Or getting my arse handed to me by dragons in Skyrim. It stresses me out to know that I’m just wasting time like this and neglecting things that I genuinely enjoy doing.

Lastly there’s my friends and family. Now it’s natural that as you get older you grow apart from your friends. Everyone grows up, moves away, families are started, homes are bought and work pressures build. But I hardly ever see friends anymore or talk to them. We seem to be deluded into thinking we’re keeping in touch these days just because we saw some pictures of each other on our respective holidays or wearing a stupid jumper at Christmas. That’s not keeping in touch, it’s just nodding at each other from across the street if you happen to pass. Funnily enough as I write this I am actually going to meet up with friends this weekend for the first time in a while. In some cases it will have been months since I’ve seen them. They all live within an hour of me.

I lied when I said lastly… but lets not delve into the self-defeating acts of workplace procrastination the internet enables for me.

I think part of the problem is a kind of laziness inertia which happens after I get home and sit on the couch. Inevitably the laptop or tablet come out and I sit checking facebook, browsing reddit or other online forums while I have tea, feed the baby etc. Then I stay there. Before I know it most of the evening’s past and I decide there’s no point starting to do something constructive so I sigh and open up another tab in chrome or maybe I’ll get as far as turning off the laptop and watching an episode of Community on Netflix. By the end of the week I’m fully up to speed on which of my casual acquaintances still plays Candy Crush Saga on Facebook but have made no progress on any musical ambitions or finishing any projects.

What’s the solution for all this?  Before I was always connected to the internet I spent all my spare time doing constructive things like playing guitar, going to the pub with friends, playing video games or being terrible at football. I want to spend more time on the things I enjoy doing, rather than feel depressed because I can’t drag my sorry carcass away from twitter long enough to strum a guitar. Ignorance was bliss as I was unaware of all the underhand shit being perpetrated by politicians and other assorted scumbags the world over. Now I’m overloaded with conspiracies both real and imagined which force me to spend my time in a state of permanent outrage at the endless fuckwittery that’s out there. It’s really fucking tiring.

I could take the nuclear option. Delete the Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone, and most of my bookmarks from Chrome. The problem with that is that I do derive some value from the interactions I have online and the internet is of some use as a tool for organising holidays, buying stuff and for learning about things.

I think the answer, like with so many things, is to impose strict moderation. I need to stop reaching for the tablet every time I sit down and push myself to live a life with more interaction in the real world instead of spending it online. Unless I have a good reason to turn on my laptop it needs to stay off.  Ah, but what about writing? I have to use my laptop for that (even I struggle to read my handwriting).  Damn. Maybe I need to dig out an old laptop and never configure it’s WiFi connection so it remains offline. Apparently George RR Martin does that. A Song Of Ice and Fire is written in Wordstar 4.0 on Dos…

If anyone has any better ideas, let me know.