Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Back Dog Down - March

It’s with some shame I admit I struggled this past month. With almost everything. No triumphs or victories to sing about, barely scraped together a draw. I managed some writing, some editing and managed to feel good about some of my work. Not a great deal of blood or sweat involved, but quite often there were tears, for no good reason, regardless of whether the writing went well or not. Meanwhile, as far as home environment is concerned I managed maintenance rather than any marked improvement. But sometimes I guess it’s enough to maintain the status quo. Just ask Status Quo.

After the Germanwings disaster, I even struggled with the notion of writing this blog. Black Dog Down sounds like the sort of tactless crass headline a daily rag might plaster across its front page. But in some ways the gutter press helped me make up my mind. By doing their level best to stigmatise mental health problems, they aggravated my anger issues and if nothing else anger can be a potent motivator. (Although it derails me about as often as it fires me up, so it’s a bit of a coin-flip.) I’ve no need to comment on any of that, because MINDexpressed it so much better than I could.
In this case, the argument in my head boiled down to no, damnit, this monthly blog is all about coaching myself (and hopefully encouraging others) to openly talk about depression. Sensibly, maturely, unashamedly.

Can’t claim to be there yet. Sensible was never my strongest point and the maturity ship has either sailed or never arrived. As for the shame, well, depression is certainly not something I feel I could own up to or discuss with acquaintances in the street. Friends, yes, but even then only a close circle.

So in that respect I guess I do enough to stigmatise depression and mental health for myself without the aid of the tabloids. As I said, it’s with some shame I have to fess up to struggling this month. And while we’re being honest, if I think about it enough (which doesn’t require much) the posts I wrote previously were all done with a degree of shame.

The internet at least provides a helpful screen to hide behind while you make your confessions. But there is always that part of my mind ready to judge. I have to remind myself that it’s the same patch of cerebral turf patrolled by the Black Dog.

Depression’s not a sin. It doesn’t require confession or absolution.

For most of us, if we had an actual disease we’d sooner or later drag ourselves out of our sickbeds, pack ourselves off to the GP’s surgery, explain our symptoms and tell him or her how shit we felt in our mission to extract as much sympathy and medication out of them as we could.

Funnily enough, one of the things that (partially) derailed all my best plans early on in the month was getting struck down with a dose of man-flu. Which, as we all know, is a lot worse than just ordinary flu. It was grotty and it really hacked me off that right at the beginning of the month my carefully laid out schedule was torpedoed by a murky head and a sore throat like I’d recently taken up sword-swallowing as a hobby. Scratch the first week of the month, essentially, and then I’m left with the constant sense of having to catch up. Working harder just to get back to where I should have been anyway. Not a terrific morale-booster for me.

Anyway, long story short, despite the ensuing frustrations and annoyance at the microbes that struck me down like a feeble Martian war machine, when I was ill I gave myself permission to be ill. Gave myself days off, grabbed rest when I needed it, generally made allowances.

Stupid really. Because when have I ever done that for depression?

Well, to be fair, I have on occasion. But that’s a relatively recent development on this slow learning curve. But I find I have to consciously coach myself, to remind myself to be more understanding. We rarely need reminders that the Black Dog is snapping at our heels, but we do need to stop and remind ourselves what that means. Amongst other things, to be kinder to ourselves and treat it on a more equal playing field with other illnesses.

Such an obvious, non-revelatory lesson, it’s almost a waste of blogspace. But like bread and milk on my shopping list writing it down should help me to remember.
So first of all I’m making great mental efforts not to mark March down as a failure or a loss. Call it a draw, like I say.

And if the world of germs plays nice next month (aka tomorrow +), the plan is to dedicate April to writing in quite a rigid disciplined way. It’s not for everyone but as a born writer it’s actually a key essential for my mental health to feel that side of life is going well.

The trick, I think, will be less about adhering to the schedule I have planned and more about writing without judging.

And if I manage to do that with fiction, well, let’s hope this time next month I can do that with respect to depression. Because, let’s face it, if we are so susceptible to our own judgment, small wonder we dread the judgments of others. Small wonder we keep this disease so much to ourselves.

It’s not a disease we should feel ashamed of. People appear on telly with more embarrassing things, for chrissakes, on Embarrassing Bodies. Or with even more embarrassing conditions, like chronic talentlessness, on I’m A Celebrity! Get Me Out Of Here. You must know that invaluable piece of advice to those nervous about public speaking: look at your audience and imagine all of them on the toilet. These days we don’t have to imagine. Just watch what people are up to on reality TV. It won’t necessarily cheer you up – god knows, it depresses me to think that this is what’s classed as entertainment. But it ought to teach us that there’s more shame in other things and some folks seem able to overcome that. So we should be able to, if not actually hold our heads high, look friends in the eye and ‘fess up’ to depression.

So, here’s me telling the world (from behind the protective barrier of the internet) about my month. For more than half of it, I felt like crap, and the things I love and the things I love doing were a battle. And even when the mornings went well I often cried in the afternoons and I couldn’t give you a decent explanation as to why.

It’s all in our heads. It needs to be out there.

Happy Easter, ladies and mentalfolk.

SAF 2015

Friday, February 27, 2015

Black Dog Down - February

Welcome, my friend, to the show that never ends. Welcome to my personal War On Terror.

Perhaps an overly dramatic way of putting it, but I was always told you need to open with a good hook. And maybe a song.

Anyway, so here we are and the end of month two is nigh.  So I’ve just made the mistake of reviewing my goals and aims for the month, looking at all I’ve achieved – and all I haven’t. And despite going to all the trouble of marking the achievements with a big red asterisk, guess which ones stand out the most? That’s right, the failures.

Except, of course, they’re not failures, are they? They only happen to be goals I missed. We hit the crossbar or headed it off into the crowd. And believe me when I say I hate football, so I would never use such analogies lightly. It annoys me that I didn’t manage to score every goal, it frustrates me and, yes, it compounds my depression.

There’s a little Yoda in the back of my mind that shakes his head despondently and murmurs something about there is no try, do or do not. But what does the stunted old Jedi Master know? He can’t even form proper sentences.

That’s going to be a key battle in this war. Unlearning all those habits, all those NATs (Negative Automatic Thoughts) that, frankly, ought to begin with a G the way they swarm around and settle on any piece of shit that springs to mind.

What I have to consciously coach myself to do is to see the red asterisks in bold and not berate myself for the blank spaces. Missed goals don’t amount to much when you’re still in the match and the referee’s not about to blow his whistle. There’s no time limit here. I have, it’s true, set out this year as my own personal target for ‘re-training the Black Dog’ (sic) but that’s only a neat, convenient and (we hope) realistic and manageable timeline for what is, after all, a fairly major project.

This then would be an opportune point to report some of the things I have achieved in practical terms. In some respects, this blog is like checking in with a therapist, so as much as it’s also meant to be of some help to other depressives, it’s helpful for me to account for my time and recognise any progress et cetera. Like, say, if you’d trained your pet (Black) dog to roll over and play dead you’d want to tell everyone, right?

Well, fair to say, I’ve not achieved anything quite so spectacular this month. What I have done is continued the de-cluttering campaign that I began in January. It’s a slow and steady process, highly compartmentalised. Mostly a couple of hours every Sunday, cleaning and tidying and, for example, sorting/clearing out a particular cupboard or shelf or drawer.

Pretty basic stuff, but the kind of stuff that qualifies as a major victory when you have some mornings where you wake and lie there in bed afraid to get up and start your day. It’s helped me conquer that ‘terror’ for a minimum of one day a week – Sundays I don’t fear at all, because I’ve come to understand that Sundays are comprised of tasks that are perfectly do-able, tasks that I am more than equal to. It’s rewarded me with visible, measurable improvements in my home environment. And it’s (slowly) encouraged me to care. You know, where these things felt utterly pointless and futile previously, I now feel it’s worthwhile. It makes a difference.

Another part of the plan for this month was to really launch back into my writing. It’s something that’s never gone away altogether, but it has deserted me for longish periods now and then. I’ll talk at more length about that next month (largely because I’ve chosen to make writing the priority for March – it being an instrumental element of my mental health), but for the present it’s probably enough to note that after a scrappy start I didn’t hit any sort of creative stride until 16th of February.

Halfway through!

Again, I must resist the impulse to beat myself up about that. Yes, Master Yoda, some days there was no try.

Forget all that. The flip side is that the same half-empty month is in fact half-full. I’ve been busy and productive most of the time since the 16th and while some of what I’ve written was, if I’m being kind to myself, utter drivel, it was still writing and when I despaired at a particular chunk of scribbles I’d produced last Friday I confronted it head-on the following day and actually salvaged something passable out of it. To the extent that I could feel pretty good about it.

That’s a win. Not the match, but a point.

In fact, tennis will probably work better as an analogy for me.

I love to watch Wimbledon every year – it was one of the interests me and my mum shared. And I’m a big fan of Maria Sharapova – the last Wimbledon I watched with my mum was the 2004 final when Maria won. And I’ve been an admirer of hers ever since.

Now, I’m a deep thinker but I’m not without my shallows, so yes, it hasn’t escaped my notice Maria is pretty. But one of her qualities you’ll often hear commentators commentate on is her mental strength. And that has made at least as strong and lasting impression.

Guess what? She loses. She loses matches. She loses points all the time. She can have serious runs of bad games in a set. But she composes herself, wipes it from memory almost and is one of the best at tackling one point at a time.

That is the kind of contest we’re in here. A year-long tournament, month-long matches. Maybe a week is a set and days are the games. However you choose to look at it, you – and by you, I include myself – have to view each point for what it is. A single point. If you lose one or even let one pass you by, you don’t dwell. Because you can win the next one. Difference is, we only have to win a few points to win a whole month/match.

So in that sense, I have it easier than Maria. I mean, apart from her millions and her looks. But, like I say, I have to keep my goals and ambitions realistic.

Anyway, that is essentially the belief I have to carry forward into March and beyond. And I’m the umpire as well as the player in this tournament. I get to say whether the ball is in or out. And the Black Dog can call on Hawkeye all he wants, but I have the final say.

As it is, I can’t bring myself to call February a victory. But I’m calling it a draw at this stage and I think I’ll win on a closely fought tie-break.

Next month, we’ll aim to prove the pen is mightier than the tennis racquet. Write is might.

That Black Dog is going down.

SAF 2015

Friday, January 30, 2015

Black Dog Down - Month One


'Ring a bell and I’ll salivate.’

So sing the Barenaked Ladies in their track, BrianWilson.

They’re making a reference, of course, to Pavlov’s dog. While Anna Pavlova was busy inventing a meringue dessert, her dear old relative was training pooches. Okay, I might be short on historical accuracy there, but Ivan Petrovich’s experiments with conditioned canines form part of the foundations of modern behaviour therapy.

In essence, this Russian scientist dude would sound a buzzer at every mongrel mealtime until eventually the dogs associated the noise with the arrival of their Chum. To the extent that they’d drool in expectation whenever they heard the sound, irrespective of whether any food showed up.

As a direct result of these experiments, a Black Dog arose to avenge the cruel use of his brethren in scientific research. He escaped Pavlov’s lab and to this day he roams the globe, seeking human prey. Even as he stalks fresh fodder, he rarely leaves his previous victims alone. He remembers where he buried the bones and digs them up now and again, to worry and gnaw at them and keep his teeth sharp.

Pavlov’s Black Dog. That’s how I’ve thought of him for a few years now. Because before he broke out of the lab the bastard seemed to have learned a few tricks from his master. He conditions us – and by us, I mean anyone who has suffered with depression for any protracted period.

‘It’s a matter of instinct, a matter of conditioning. It’s a matter of fact.’

So goes the song.

And that’s pretty much how the Black Dog operates.

It’s our natural instinct to respond emotionally to all the shhhstuff that hits the various fans in life. And lord knows, plenty of lives are plagued by more crap than could ever be produced by one dog.

So if it keeps hitting fans and keeps getting flung our way, those negative emotional responses become automatic. Embedded in the way we think and feel. Notions that we’re ‘not good enough’ or we’re failures in some way become, in our heads, fact.

You can probably achieve similar results on prison inmates. Subject them to the same daily routine, day-in, day in (they’re prisoners, they don’t get days out). Come day of release, you can expect a significant number of ex-offenders to carry their prison behaviour with them into free society. Which will often lead them back guess where.

Depression is a prison sentence for our brains. We’re primed to react the same way, no matter how trivial the trigger. Heck, sometimes we don’t even need the buzzer to sound or the bell to ring. We’re already feeling it, chained to the post in the Black Dog’s yard, choked by the collar.

Speaking for myself, as a writer I routinely send out manuscripts to agents and the like, meeting the inevitable publishing-industry walls and it’s easy to see how repeated rejections could get you down a bit. To the extent that, if I’m being honest, I send them out a lot less routinely than I’d like. That, I should add, formed no part of my personal triggering incident – I think the original root causes of my depression are historic and ancient enough now to be largely irrelevant. But negative experiences will of course reinforce the Black Dog’s conditioning and it (too) frequently gets to the point where I can’t handle the slightest disappointment in life.

Which, clearly, is never going to work, because a life without disappointments is about as likely as world peace.

Sparing the details, last year was a particular nadir for me. And I don’t mean Nadir Sawalha. This coming year might be no different, but as is invariably the case around this time in the calendar I am full of intentions to turn things around.

Question is, what’s to be done?

A Black Dog’s not just for Christmas, it’s for life. Well, that’s how it feels. Is it like alcoholism – you’re never actually cured? (Couldn’t say with any certainty, because I’ve never been a bona fide alcoholic.)

Regardless, there’s only one viable option, as far as I can see.

It’s time to train the Dog.

CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) has had some success for me in the past, but like a gym membership it’s too easy to lapse. It’s all about catching those negative automatic thoughts and combating them with reason. Easier said than done and just like at that gym or for anyone battling weight problems you have to persist and stick with it to see any results. All too often if we don’t see those results, we grow impatient and we give it up as a lost fight. With that in mind, my reason currently tells me that to treat an invisible disease I’m going to need visible results within a reasonable timescale. Which translates to tackling external factors which may have a knock-on effect on the internal

Hence, I’ve begun this January by dealing with my home environment. That means cleaning, tidying, general de-cluttering. Chucking out stuff I don’t need and purchasing a new item or two that, in theory, ought to provide some tangible improvements in lifestyle. Fairly obvious stuff, I know, and it’s not going to win me a Nobel prize for psychology. But hey, Nobel = no bell = no, er, salivation. And early indications are that it is making a (modest) difference.

Money, I appreciate, is not always an option for everyone – I had to dig into savings and do myself out of the huge 0.1% interest I could have had from the bank. So purchases might be out of the question, but I can recommend small changes. Small is, in fact, key. When you’re training for a marathon you don’t run the full 26 miles right away. Long-term conditioning can’t be overcome with anything but long-term efforts. And even when it came to something as simple and trifling as the sorting and tidying I really had to compartmentalise the operation, break it down into manageable stages. There are days when even small tasks feel pointless and too much like hard work, so a coping strategy is essential, as ridiculous as that may sound. As of today, the job is nowhere near done, but improvements are already discernible. By picking a single room as my weekly focus I ought to have environs I can feel better about by the end of February.

That sounds realistic and do-able to me. Even allowing for down days.

The Black Dog, I think, festers in dirt and disorganisation. He loves a mess. So, in theory, I’m making him less welcome. Less at home.

None of this may work. None of this may hold, but we’ve made a start. And I mean to report in to this blog every month, to track progress and share results for the benefit of, well, me – and others who are more familiar with depression than they ever wanted to be.

At this stage, I couldn’t even tell you what the next steps are in this twelve month programme. At the very least, I want to be the one ringing the bell or buzzer and not feeding that bastard pooch. By the end of the year, I really hope to be able to report just one thing:

Black Dog Down.

Time will tell. See you back here in a month.

SAF 2015

Visit Black Dog Tribe for more information on depression and other mental health issues.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

More Advents In Time And Space No.24

Doctor Who Limerick Advent

No.24: The Feast Of Peter

Changing like the seasons by Vivaldi
The Doctor's now played by Capaldi
He's one of the best
If the next one costs less
We'll like that one too - he's from Aldi!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to one and all!


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

More Advents In Time And Space No.23

Doctor Who Limerick Advent

No.23: Aliens Of London/World War Three

Aliens pose as top brass
By neatly compressing their mass
The Slitheen have their day
But they're given away
By comedic emissions of gas

SAF 2014

Monday, December 22, 2014

More Advents In Time And Space No.22

Doctor Who Limerick Advent

No.22: Delta And The Bannermen

A space-bus falls from the sky!
Like a ship from a Fifties sci-fi
Old mercenaries tramp
Through a holiday camp
It's Dad's Army meets Hi-De-Hi

SAF 2014

Sunday, December 21, 2014

More Advents In Time And Space No.21

Doctor Who Limerick Advent

No.21: Paradise Towers

The Kangs lend a colourful splash
Rezzies will serve you with mash
In a tower that's efficient
Made near self-sufficient
By Tom Good in a Hitler moustache

SAF 2014