Sunday, July 31, 2016

Black Dog Dead - July

Snakes and ladders.

You roll the dice, you move. If you’re lucky you climb, if not you fall.

In life, your moves are not left purely to random chance. As much as it may feel that way some days, it’s not true. You have a great deal of control and choice over how you approach your day. It’s just that you have to accept that your control doesn’t extend to some of the random shit that can cross your path.

The month of June for me was something of a lesson in realising the limits of what I can and cannot control, the extent to which I can change the world, for instance (hint: it’s a very small amount), and a reminder to scale things back and focus primarily on my own smaller world. To make differences where they could be seen and measured and felt.

Charity begins at home is the commonly trotted-out phrase. I don’t particularly subscribe to that view, but the fight versus the Black Dog definitely does. Hence, after June’s political warfare and the EU referendum fallout, it was good to adjust the focus to me and my immediate world.

As depressing (small d) as it is to be a socialist right now, July is a month which comes with an annual feature known as a birthday and while I know age can be as depressing (small d) as politics for some, I’m not generally one to feel the negative effects. Far from it, I go all out to celebrate and award myself a good few days – maybe as much as a week – with only as much work as I feel like doing. And this year I even gave myself a week off any discussion of politics on social media.

I’m not saying it was easy exactly. A writer’s holidays never are, in my experience. Not-writing is the toughest of all the writerly disciplines by far. The brain keeps working even if the fingers are denied their keyboard and I usually end up making notes, jotting down ideas and plotting out plots. Word doodling. But such work-related non-work activities are liberally seasoned with plenty of R&R, a few treats and an evening or two out. So it all still qualifies as a break.

Staying away from politics had its own share of challenges. Shit happened. Quite a lot of farcical shit that begged for comment. I resisted, dear reader. I did at times feel like Chandler in Friends that time when he declared he was no longer going to use humour as a defence mechanism. By the end of the ordeal, the poor guy was bursting with jokes. But I survived the whole seven days.

All in all, they were the best of times, they were the healthiest of times. Friends, presents, alcohol, a trip to the cinema, more friends. General birthday sorts of things. From my perspective that counts as a lot of ladders.

And while we can’t afford to be reliant on boosts from external sources, much of what we gain from these kinds of assists are down to us. In the first place, it’s a question of being open to social opportunities and the like. In the second, a great deal is down to how much of ourselves we invest in them and the value we attach to them. Which is to say, it’s not just a case of whether or not you count your blessings, but how much you count them. So rest assured I welcomed every smile, every joke, every hug, conversation and birthday wish and banked the lot.

Heck, I even got quite a bit out of a solo trip to the cinema to see the latest Star Trek movie and I don’t even like Star Trek.

All this atmosphere of positivity was a great foundation for resuming my usual work schedule the following week and I made a good start on the following Monday. Awesome.

And if all  that sounds too good to be true and you know what’s coming, then you’d sort of be right. But only sort of.

Because there were no specific snakes lurking in my path.

Rather, it was just plain old (chronic) tiredness that tripped me up in the end.

Insomnia is another big enemy of mine, has been for years. Possibly some relation to the Black Dog, but one connection I know there is lies in the dangers of an exhausted mind. Four nights straight of some of the worst sleep (or lack) I’ve known and my defences were seriously down. The usual guards against NATs (Negative Automatic Thoughts) were dozing on duty and by the fourth day it took very little to creep in and weaken the structural integrity. So little, I couldn’t even tell you now the thought or incident that triggered it. Whatever it was, I crumbled, majorly.

Now, I give myself credit: I responded pretty well – eventually. Indulgent as it sounds, after a week off for my birthday, I awarded myself some days off – to rest, remove any sense of pressure to do anything and basically take a step back and take a breather. Mostly resorted to some TV and listening to music (a chance to enjoy some of those birthday presents), very small chores at home to provide microscopic senses of achievement with minimal cost in effort. Afternoon naps were permitted. When I was feeling a bit more like myself, I made myself go out and spend a little time with one of my favourite people. Stepped it up gradually to a half-day of writing and the slightly more major chore of laundry.

These steps will all sound like stupid things to many, but they are what winning looks like when the Black Dog strikes so viciously as it did on this occasion. And they’re not a natural cause for great pride, but I have to allow myself to feel a degree of pride in achieving such small victories. Again, the value of such things comes down to whatever value you attach to them.

You got up and had breakfast on Tuesday? That’s either ‘no big deal’ or ‘bloody well done you’. You ran the hoover around the living room on Wednesday? ‘So what’ or ‘high five!’. You washed the dishes on Thursday? ‘Slow hand clap’ or ‘round of applause’. The difference is in your power to decide. Never mind what others think, others who might manage these things without a second’s thought. To you, if they’re a struggle and you do them, then they’re huge.

And if you don’t? If they seem too big a mountain to climb? Fine-tune your scale. Your own huge victories may have to be a bit smaller for a while. But they’re yours and you set the scale. You’re the only one who has any say in how they are measured.

That much, I have learned. And I’m not the fastest of learners, it must be fessed up.

There were other lessons I learned from those four days of rebuilding me. One, that while I share my experiences online because I believe wholeheartedly that there should be no stigma attached to issues of mental health, I recognise that part of me is seeking to shame myself into action. I do feel some shame as a Depressive (big D) and feel like I should be stronger than I clearly am. Rationally, I recognise that as part of the disease. Same as, even now as I write this, part of me is thinking not of how I used those four days to good effect in putting myself back on my feet – but how I’ve lost four days in what ought to have been my working schedule.

But these are the traps that our that our thoughts are prone to fall into. More pesky NATs that hover around in the wake of the Black Dog like flies around shit.

The fact is, we are back on the board. And even if we’re a little scared of rolling the dice, we can move forward one space at a time.

There will be snakes and there will be ladders. No matter how far you progress, Square One is only one slide away. And that’s frightening.

But we know the steps involved in getting back up.

SAF 2016

Friday, July 01, 2016

Black Dog Dead - June

Come on, Black Dog, make up your mind. Are you IN or OUT?

Now, I’m sure I’ve talked before about how ideally I’d love to better manage my emotional reactions to the news, the world of politics and so on, and if ever there was a month to test my progress in that quarter, June 2016 was it.

So how’d I do?

In some respects, hopelessly badly. In others, pretty damned well.

For the most part, my personal focus this month was on one goal: completing edits on my Lethbridge-Stewart novel and submitting the MS on time to the editor at Candy Jar Books. That was the be all and end all on the work front and I must confess other things did slide – household chores neglected, social life (what’s that?) and general R&R.

If at times the editing marathon looked too packed and too daunting, I broke it down into short sprints. Even as little as half an hour, short break, half an hour, short break, through the afternoons and some evenings. It enabled me to largely ignore the big hill I had to climb and focus on the details, making the task easier to approach and, I hope, benefiting the writing.

And I did it.  Goal achieved. Hats off, hurrah, well done me and I remembered to award myself some R&R after it was done. Actually, I had more days off than I’d intended. I meant to move fairly quickly on to resuming writing on Evil UnLtd Vol 5 and did get to work on some notes and plotting, scribbling ideas here and there, but my creative brain demanded more rest and for once I gave into its demands.

I’m learning!

As with May, the busy daily timetable didn’t leave a great deal of room for contemplating my mental state. I continued my habit of the weekly morning swim and that remains beneficial, although I still have an occasional struggle just getting myself to that pool and there are feelings of anxiety and isolation that surface now and again during the swim. But I know the benefits and keep going. And I think it’s generally fair to say that if you’re not stopping to think about it, if you’re doing, then at the very least you have generated a revolving door which really confuses the crap out of the Black Dog and keeps the bastard out for a while.

Still, without adopting a completely hermitic lifestyle it’s impossible to shut out the world altogether. And in any case, if we care at all, we shouldn’t when there is an opportunity to have our say in a national democratic decision.

So I followed the EU referendum campaign as best I could in between the workathon.

What a horror show.

Worse because quite apart from the main feature it put me in touch with other world news. And in the midst of some of the basest level debate I’ve had the displeasure to witness, there came reports of shootings. Mass murder in Orlando and the murder of Jo Cox MP. And because I’ve yet to become inured to such things, it’s fair to say there was some sense of despair and hopelessness colouring my world view as the debate marched on towards June 23rd.

Obviously, discussion of the politics belongs mostly elsewhere and believe me I did my share. Suffice to say, I was deeply disappointed by certain aspects of the campaign going on before my eyes – lies, misinformation, ignorance, racism – and further dismayed by the result. Oops, just gave away which side of the fence I was on. Oh well. But in this context, it’s irrelevant. Because the country today is full of Remainers and Brexiters who live in a world of uncertainty and anxiety and some of us, whichever way we voted, were already suffering with mental health issues.

I don’t mind telling you, on Friday 24th June I was depressed.

Yeah, I was gutted, like any person would be, waking up to bad news. And I got angry and I vented on social media and all the rest.

But, and here’s the thing, this wasn’t Depression with a capital, clinical D.

We know the difference when the Black Dog strikes. I especially knew the difference because it did strike a few days later, on the following Tuesday. Yeah, that’s the day we went from ordinary old-fashioned blues to when the Black Dog voted itself IN.

Now, I know there were several contributing factors that just converged and became too much. Thinking back I can even recall the stages throughout that day combining to tip me over and sink me into a deep dark pit.

And I think that’s quite significant, because so many times before I have been totally unable to tell anyone why I’m feeling Depressed, to identify a triggering incident or chain of incidents. Often when you are dragged along in an undertow of emotion, it’s easy to lose sight of the source.

I’m hoping that I can retain some measure of that awareness and be alert for warning signs in future.

Anyway, what’s even more important is that I came through and emerged on the other side. Not exactly a ray of sunshine today as I write this – partly cloudy, might best describe my state of mind. But once again we have kicked the Black Dog out and if there is any depression lingering then it has shed its capital, clinical D for now.

How did I battle my way through?

Well, I didn’t put up a fight, I can tell you that much.

Gave in to it. Gave up, even. Allowed myself to crash, then slowly hauled myself out of the wreckage the following day, when I was ready. You have to be real careful when moving an accident victim.

In practical terms, what it amounted to was extending a break I was already supposed to be on after completing my novel. A planned couple of days off became three or four, carrying me right up to the end of June. Indulgent, but necessary. Carrying on with a few scribbled notes, just to let the imagination play and help me feel like I wasn’t quite out of the game altogether, combined with being kind to myself – a dash of comfort telly, a spot of video gaming, watching some tennis highlights, general vegging, curling up under a blanket and/or a cat, much like you would if you were ill. Which I was, of course.

And thanks to a bit of good timing on the part of the calendar this convalescent spell was nicely tailed off with an evening out for a mate’s birthday, right at the end of the month. Can’t say I was in the best spirits for partying at the outset, but I recognised the need for it and went out and took my medicine. And it did the trick.

After a brief and untidy and highly disorganised campaign, I voted the Black Dog OUT again. Hurray!

And here we are, next day, beginning of July. Another fresh start in a sense, where I’m reminded of my limitations and know how to proceed for the next thirty-one days.

Yes, we can change the world, but it’s a question of scale. You do what you can and that is all you can do. And sometimes if it looks hopeless or pointless, well, the only thing you can do is focus on yourself and your small world, where you can see and measure the differences you make.


SAF 2016