This week I have mostly been…

I’ve thrown myself down a few creative holes recently and had quite a busy week for putting work online in some form or another.

I recently began publishing articles on Medium to try out that platform and give myself another outlet for some writing which I think would be unsuitable to host here. I think I would like this site to become very informal and just be personal reflections rather than anything too serious or professional.

At the end of last week I posted an article there about how I try and maintain self-belief in the face of anxiety, depression and the mental issues which these conditions inflict on me

Then at the weekend I presented my parents with the gift I’d made for them to congratulate them on their ruby wedding anniversary. It’s a drawing of the family tree which they planted the seeds for forty years ago, along with a short poem I wrote for them
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I’m pretty proud of it as someone who is really, really bad at drawing!

After that it was back to music and a project I’m working on throughout 2017 – recording 50 tunes throughout the year in a mix of video and sound recordings. This is an effort to get me learning and writing new music as well as building confidence in myself as a musician again. On Tuesday I posted a video of two tunes played on mandolin – Road to Banff and The Spey In Spate.

Once I’d recorded the mandolin set I left the camera set up and decided to do an impromptu poetry reading. I entered some poems into a major competition towards the end of last year and received confirmation that they’d not made the shortlist this week. Which, while disappointing, does mean they are now free to be entered elsewhere and shared with the world again. One of those poems is Leaving The Woods, which I wrote around the idea of leaving your childhood behind and based on some memories I had of the woods we played in as children.

I also published it via Medium with a bit of background on the poem itself and the stories told within it

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.

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.