Sunday, February 28, 2016

Black Dog Dead - February

Back in August of last year, my then recently ex wife asked how I was doing and if I was eating ok.

The answer? Well, I was, I think, eating all right – I was consuming food anyway – but I constantly wondered why. Why was I eating at all? Food sustains life, but if you feel like you have none, what’s the point? That question - what’s the point? – was my principal enemy.

Other such Negative Automatic Thoughts (NATs) have plagued me in the past – and certain ones still do (there have been times I could swear the words NOT GOOD ENOUGH were tattooed on my brain at an early age), although I am generally much more aware of them and practised at catching them before they can flit around my head too long and make a major fucking pest of themselves.

But ‘what’s the point?’ is a particularly stubborn one to swat.

It’s returned today, just as I sat down to write this blog. But it’s not born of any questioning the worth of this exercise. Which is probably one reason why I’m still ploughing ahead and writing it. That, and I can be a stubborn bastard too.

Fortunately, I’ve progressed a long way since last August. Remembering that time serves as a helpful reminder of how far I’ve come. Of course, the days when these breakdowns still threaten serve as a counter-reminder of how fragile sometimes recovery can be.

Today’s blog post can be viewed as something of a test, then. How will I fare in confronting and handling this mini crisis point? Will the NAT win today? Or will I spray it with positive insecticide and watch it emulate a dying fly on the windowsill of February?

Where’d this NAT come from?

Well, NATs hover around all kinds of shit, but I remember this particular one from back in the middle of this month.

There I was still working away to get caught up after that first fortnight in January and I was doing pretty well, I reckoned. (At current estimate, one more month of playing catch up should get me back on the original schedule, yay!) Then someone kicked my sandcastle. Twas those nasty folks at the Inland Revenue. Mind, they were just following orders. Changes in the rules for Working Tax Credits, handed down from their Tory scumbag masters.

Briefly, in future, £54 per week of WTC will be dependent on my ability to show a profit in my chosen self-employment. This will require quarterly reporting, interviews, assessments etc. Because, obviously, the pressures of making a living out of writing weren’t enough already.

Now, I’m guessing, but maybe when normal, healthy people read these kind of official notification letter from government they grumble, bitch, moan, probably swear a bit. For me, it provoked huge anger, anxiety attacks, reduced me to tears, made me contemplate jacking it all in and question the worth of life. In short, resurrected that old NAT to come haunt me again.

What’s the point?

(Honestly, my heart goes out to those more vulnerable than myself who may identify with some of the above, but are finding themselves under greater pressures and suffering greater hardships.)

Battled through it and fought it off over the course of a day, which is to my credit. A case of being good to myself, giving myself a day off work (that’ll help prove my profitability), lots of music, modest amounts of creativity (I find artwork therapeutic – I’m no good at it, but oddly that means I don’t end up beating myself up about the quality – or lack of it – the way I would with a shoddy piece of writing). A combination, I suppose, of fighting the thought at the moments I was feeling strong and diverting myself from it when I wasn’t feeling up to the fight.

That spell aside, most of February has been productive and creative. I’ve been working hard on a number of projects, enjoyed a lovely little morale boost just by virtue of officially announcing one of those projects (a novel for the Lethbridge-Stewart range, by Candy Jar books – that’s right, me writing for the dear old Brigadier from Doctor Who), and achieving all manner of stuff that wouldn’t impress the Inland Revenue one jot.

(NB. All these efforts of mine may actually generate income at some point, but I’m just not sure hard graft and productivity will weigh heavily as evidence to present before officialdom. Time will tell.)

Wary of the power that added pressure had to sink me – even if ‘only’ for a day (and I put ‘only’ in quotes because it really was a horrible day) – I looked to be a bit more prepared for future torpedo attacks – because we all know there will be more. There are always more.

So I did an exercise in what we’ll call life accounting. Essentially, listing goals – the elements you’re missing or seeking in life, the ‘things’ you want (quotes because most of the things I want aren’t things) – and your principal enemies – the negatives, the qualities or habits, say, that hold you back, barriers or opposition etc – in Column B. Example: mine are largely internal – depression, obviously, stress, anxiety, anger, loneliness, tiredness.

See, I don’t even include the Inland Revenue, they don’t feature because although they have added to my pressures – thanks, guys – they are not the problem. My problem lies in how I deal with them. Indeed, I made a conscious effort to exclude anything that wasn’t dependent solely on me. Because anything you are trying to address or achieve in life that is reliant on someone else is open to huge amounts of uncertainty. And this, we don’t need. Not when we’re focused on our own recovery.

Anyway, in other columns, you then start to list your actions. The steps you might take to attain those items in Column A and the steps you might take to eliminate, reduce or overcome those in Column B. Broad strokes, at first, but it helps if you can then go on to break the broader steps down into smaller, more immediately manageable actions. Baby steps.

(As I said on Facebook, columns – they’re s supporting structure.)

No need to bore you with my entire spreadsheet, but it’s worth citing a specific example, particularly one where I know it’s helped and I’ve made measurable progress. If tiredness is an Enemy and physical fitness/health a goal, one response is physical exercise – I resumed my (old) habit of a morning swim. Just once a week for now, since that’s all the budget will allow for, but it’s a start.
That, as it happened, had additional side benefits. I felt good about myself just for doing it. Yeah, it took me until the last week of the month to apply this plan, but hey, I did it. Medal, please. Pat on the back. Muchos congrats.

And if my subconscious throws up that NAT – what’s the point? – about that, well, I can point specifically at the point. The point in this case, oh nuisance NAT, is physical health, feeling fitter (eventually!) and feeling generally better about myself (heck, feeling more attractive maybe – why the hell not) and possibly feeling sufficiently knackered for at least one day a week so that I actually sleep pretty well. Thanks for asking, NAT.

And if you have an answer for the NAT, there’s not much for it to do but sod off. For a while anyway.
Writing this has gone some significant way to answering today’s NAT. Hopefully it’s beating its head against a window somewhere in this café in its efforts to get out and leave me alone.

For the duration of March, at least. Because I have every intention of being too fucking busy to deal with NATs. And the action to take in the face of Inland Revenue letters of doom is to stick with the plan. It was a good plan. And it’s still a good plan. We have to trust in that.

In the months since that dark August I have battled to find raisons d’être and I believe I succeeded. Now I think I’m ready to start looking for raisons de vivre.

SAF 2016

Monday, February 01, 2016

Black Dog Dead - January

Wow, so 2016 started off a real downer, didn’t it?
Bowie, Rickman, Frey and the lesser-known to many but actually pretty significant to my early experiences of Doctor Who and other TV dramas, Robert Banks Stewart. Like a hero cull.

As I’ve said elsewhere, many of us are just at an age where we begin to lose our heroes. No matter whether it’s too soon or whether they have lived to a grand old age. We would much prefer them to be immortal. They are, in a sense. But we still feel their loss keenly. It’s impossible still not to feel a little sadness when I think of Elisabeth Sladen, Caroline John, Mary Tamm. Although that touch of sadness comes hand in hand with a great appreciation for their contribution to – well, I was going to say my childhood and so on – but, ultimately, to me. Heroes help shape who we are.

Of course, this has nothing whatsoever to do with depression. But if we happen to be suffering with it, then it is another of those contributing external factors that can really seem overwhelming, especially when combined with the general post-Christmas blues and frankly shitty weather that generally characterises this time of year. I’m looking at more of the wet-and-windy gloomfest through the café window right now and it’s not doing a whole lot to lift my spirits.

Fortunately, today, they need no external lifting. I’m – what’s the word? – okay. I’m tempted to say good. But something makes me wary of overstating how I am. There’s a cautionary note attached to my self-diagnosis. So let’s go comparative and say way better than I have been.

That first fortnight of the new year, I was fairly miserable. But the chief culprit there was a germ. Some pernicious virus invading my system through the protective barrier of alcohol consumed over the festive season and proclaiming “Contact has been made.” Once it made contact, bloody hell, it settled right in and seemed determined to stay like a malignant microbial squatter. I’d keep shouting at it to leave, in short exclamations ending in *cough* but it paid m no attention. Laundry day required an extra machine just for handkerchiefs.

All right, that last part is pure exaggeration, but it was a menace and I felt grotty. Partly because I wanted to be cracking on with so many projects and things, to make a really good start to 2016.

Two weeks in, it finally packed its biohazardous bags and left, presumably to make greener pastures in someone else. Yours truly was free to throw himself into those projects and, even if I didn’t have a whole lot of energy to burn I did feel highly motivated. Determined, I guess, to make up for lost time.

Here we are at the end of January and a rough estimate concludes that I’ve achieved approximately half of what I’d hoped in this month. And several things that I’d not planned on achieving at all.

Which is about what you’d expect plus bonuses.

Now, I’m training myself out of the habit of measuring my days, weeks or months purely in terms of what I’ve achieved. There has to be more to the mental health and self-worth scale than that. But for right now I can look at the things I’ve done in the face of a poorly start and take that as an indicator. On top of that, I know that in the latter half of January I’ve had far more good days than bad.

There were times, moments usually, when the Black Dog threatened and one seriously down and strangely tearful day. Like I hadn’t shed enough fluids already with the damned cold.

But even there I was able to identify a clear and distinct trigger. And this was a new phenomenon to me.

There were moments in the wake of a really really good day where essentially I looked for someone to tell, to share that with, and felt the lack as keenly as any loss. Ironically, it cut sharper than when I’ve felt a need for someone to talk to about a bad day. I guess in part because when I’ve had a bad day, a really bad day, my assumption is that nobody will want to hear it. Whereas a good day, a really good day, surely everyone wants to hear about those. Anyway, yep, I’ve a suspicion it’s that old devil called loneliness at work.

Again, nothing to do with depression and a common enough condition. But a dangerous contributor to the Black Dog. Might as well coat yourself in Baker’s Complete and invite the Black Dog in to feast.

So, what’s the course of action now, especially in light of the clear progress I’ve made throughout 2015.

Obviously, the ultimate goal is to take that Black Dog out back and put a shotgun to its head like Old Yeller. In that event it would probably rise from the dead and continue to shamble after me like a canine zombie, but they key word there is shamble. There’s every chance I can outrun it if it’s undead.

The mission then for this year ought to be focused primarily on tackling those contributing factors – or rather, how I deal with them. It’s akin to dosing up on Lemsip, Echinacea and burying yourself under several duvets and a cat to combat the symptoms of a cold. You can’t immunise yourself totally against the germs and once they’re in they’re probably going to run their natural course, but you can alleviate the effects to some degree.

Clearly, with the best will in the world, I’m not going to be able to prevent further hero culls. Although I am fighting the good fight there to a tiny degree, as royalties from my Evil UnLtd series will continue to go to Cancer Research UK. That and an appropriate spell of mourning coupled with a celebration of their lives and works is pretty much all anyone can do.

Loneliness? A trickier foe, perhaps. But there are measures that can be taken. Getting out, taking a night off. I’m very lucky to have friends I can go seek out or bump into randomly on the street (Penzance is a small town) and even luckier that some of them are such brilliant company they can lift me with just a few words or a laugh. One of my favourite people has a smile that I really think ought to be available on the NHS: one sight of that smile and you’re set for the day. And then there are the friends that you don’t see but they’re only a Facebook post away. It’s not proper social human contact, but many people’s personalities manage to shine through the screen.

Meanwhile, since I’ve been busier and more creative/productive than ever it would seem to make sense to continue in that vein. Besides the achievement factor, it delivers other – probably more significant progress – in terms of confidence and feeling generally happier within myself. That is a change that others are able to see.

Only the other day a friend told me, “You’re looking well.” It surprised me – my first thought was, “Am I?” But hearing it worked wonders. As though it needed someone else to observe the improvement in me in order for me to quite believe it. Gold dust. 

And I will take that and bank it and let it earn interest.

Am I rid of the Black Dog?

Probably not.

But I have shotgun and ammunition.

SAF 2016