Everything will (probably) be okay (in the end).

When is a writing blog not a writing blog?

In the case of this particular blog, the answer is: today.

Ordinarily, I write about writing. You can see it right there in the tagline. I’ve just done thirty posts for thirty days of nanowrimo (which you’ll find in the Recent Posts to your right), or let me direct you here or here or here or here if you’d like to take a pot luck stab at an older, more writer-y sort of a post.

Today’s post is about depression. If I was the sort of a person who understood Venn diagrams, I might use a Venn diagram here:

Blank space where a Venn diagram should be.

… with writers in one circle, and sufferers of depression in the other circle, and I’m willing to bet (all of twenty pence) that the overlap would be LARGE. It might even be XXL. Here’s a roll call:

Sylvia Plath
Ernest Hemingway
David Foster Wallace
Virginia Woolf
Anne Sexton
Primo Levi
 

And those are just some of the ones who, very sadly, didn’t make it out alive.

But I’ve talked before about writers with depression, and that isn’t the point of this post. The point of this post, as 2014 rolls to a close, is to write an ending to my own Depression Story, as detailed in my previous wafflings. 

Above all, what I want to say, as I pretty much said in the title, is that everything will probably be okay. Eventually. You just have to hold on. That isn’t to say it won’t be not-okay, again, at some point in the future (this wasn’t my first spell of depression, and, much as I hate writing this sentence, I have to face facts: neither may it be my last), but then, after that, it will be okay again and… I’ve just tripped over my own fingers writing this sentence.

But saying that ‘things will probably be okay’ is chocolate-teapot-ian in its uselessness if I don’t back it up with some rock hard evidence, right? So I offer the following neatly bullet-pointed list, containing everything I did to get better, and if it’s raining in your head right now you may choose to try some of the things on the list.

  • I took drugs. Still take drugs. Specifically Sertraline (Zoloft in the US) at a dosage of 50mg. The first 24 hours weren’t very nice. I began to wonder if Sertraline was, in fact, a mega-dose of Blue Smartie. It was hard to sit still. I was thinking at twice, or even thrice, my normal rate, and the thoughts were universally horrible. If you’ve ever poached an egg without the assistance of an egg poacher, you’ll know that the water needs to be swirling, fairly dramatically, before you can drop in the egg. After 24 hours of swirling, I snapped my pills in half and took 25mg instead for a week. The water stopped swirling. The egg still poached, eventually. I also took Zopiclone, which helps you fall asleep, and (best of all) releases a dose of feel-good chemicals that your joy-starved brain can party with for twenty minutes or so before nodding off.
  • I took ten to twenty minutes of exercise every day. This was usually a bike ride through the woods. Sometimes it was indoor exercise of the close-the-curtains variety (which has created an unduly masturbatory aspect, I now realise) accompanied by a cut-price DVD (not helping myself, am I?) of a go-get-’em American woman assuring me I’m the best, I can do it, etc (could I dig this hole any deeper?)
  • I wrote down three new things every day that I was grateful for. They have to be new. You have to be actively beach-combing your day for the shiny shells amongst the crisp packets, condoms, and dog faeces. Even tiny things can be shiny. One day I was grateful for the wind on my face. One day I was grateful for seeing the beauty in a windblown stinging nettle. (NB: there were other things not involving the wind.)
  • I focused on other peoples’ life stories (radio 4 has a good cache of this sort of thing, in particular their One to One strand), and looked outside myself. I listened to BBC reporter Frank Gardner describing the day he was shot in the spine and his subsequent life in a wheelchair. I read a book about living in North Korea. I reminded myself every day, several times every day, that, yes, some people (appear to) lead Charmed Lives, but those people are best ignored when you’re feeling depressed (unfollow anyone on Facebook, for instance – you don’t have to unfriend them; they need never know – who fires heavy photographic artillery of the My Life is Amaze-balls variety). Open your heart, instead, to the elderly man who’s had nothing all week but frostbite and shit telly for company, or the children who mightn’t eat tonight, or the factory worker who stitched this onto a Primark label:

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  • I learnt about radical acceptance. If your depression has a particular cause (as mine did) you may find this helpful. The principle is this: when things go wrong in our lives we have four options. (1) Solve the problem (if it’s possible to solve it). (2) Change how you feel about the problem. (3) Remain miserable about the problem. (4) Accept that you can’t solve the problem, but life can still be worth living. So if (1) isn’t possible (as it wasn’t, in my case) you must radically – by which they mean fully – accept that there’s bugger all you can do about it, and perhaps (as in my case) you can’t do number (2) either, because it isn’t possible to feel positive about some things, is it? It just isn’t. So, instead, you have to ‘turn your mind’ (as it’s called) by stopping the endless flow of Why me? This shouldn’t be happening… Perhaps God or Zeus or Paul Daniels will wave his most magic of wands and make this not have happened, if I don’t do anything else wrong, ever, for the rest of my life… You have to watch out for this shit, like red lights when you’re driving, and turn your mind to acceptance instead – for which the phrase shit happens comes in very handy. There were days when I read and reread the stuff on this site and then read it again, and I clung to those pages as Harold Lloyd clung to the hands of the clock in Safety Last. So, yes, although radical acceptance does sound a little mung-beans-for-dinner-and-breast-milk-in-your-tea, it’s actually just bloody wonderful.

harold-lloyd-s-safety-last-kicks-off-the-flatpack-festival-314652517

  • I asked for help. Sometimes it was horrible, asking for help. One GP leaned back in his chair, like the cock of the walk, while pondering whether or not he would give me the drugs I wanted. I sat for two hours in a Sunday morning emergency waiting room with my greasy hair over my face. I was pushy, I argued, I insisted. If you’re not in a place to be pushy yourself, find a friend or relative who is happy to go a bit postal with the medical service on your behalf. (Some friends actively enjoy this sort of thing and are only too happy to have an excuse.)
  • I took fish oil. As recommended in this great TED talk from Shawn Anchor.
  • I practised mindfulness. I didn’t realise I was practising it (I was told, years ago, that mindfulness meant staring at a raisin for a really long time, which, in retrospect, probably wasn’t entirely useful or accurate). If a piece of chocolate tasted sweet, I noticed that it was sweet. If my head felt comfortable on the pillow in bed, I noticed that too. My brain was a child that wanted to play in the Past Failures ball pool. Mindfulness was the parent who ushered them towards the All That Really Exists Is This Moment slide instead. (Alton Towers, you need one of those.)
  • I watched videos about ballet dancers. Now, this one may be specific to me. But you can customise it. It’s soothing watching physical activity, especially if it’s set to music, and especially if men with shapely buttocks are wearing lycra whilst doing it. It gave my eyes something to focus on that was mentally undemanding.
  • I took up knitting. This gave my hands something to focus on that was mentally undemanding.
  • I played video games. This gave my hands and eyes something to focus on that was mentally undemanding.
  • I swore a lot to myself. I borrowed a catchphrase from Withnail in Withnail and I, and I said it (silently or aloud, when alone) if I felt my mind drifting towards things, and people, that in all honesty it was better off avoiding. Some people have om as their mantra. Mine can be found at 1.21 in the link below:
  • I watched ASMR videos on youtube. Relaxation videos don’t work for me: being told to relax is tantamount to telling me not to think of elephants. I need to secretly relax myself whilst my brain is distracted by people doing relaxing things. And if you think that’s something you’d like to try then read more here.
  • I drank Complan when my mouth refused to eat solid food. I’d lost two stone in less than a month. It was time to take action.
  • I talked to my friends by email when I couldn’t talk in person. 
  • I googled depression and anxiety and sadness and read everything I could find on the subject. 
  • I let myself cry when I wanted to cry.
  • I took a break from work. A long break. As long as I needed.
  • I had a few therapy sessions.
  • I cuddled my daughter.
  • I tried to watch funny things on TV.
  • I read biographies when fiction was too much.
  • When I was able to write, I wrote. When I wasn’t, I didn’t.
  • I stayed alive even though I didn’t always want to.
  • I wrote an occasional blog about being depressed.

And now we appear to have come full circle. To the best of my memory, this is everything I did on the way to recovery.

I’ve been thinking for ages now that I ought to write this post, because – thinking back over my annus horribilis as Queenie would say – it was posts like this that kept me occupied for five, or ten, or twenty minutes and five, or ten, or twenty minutes of calm sailing is all you can ask, sometimes, when the wind blows.

And now it seems I’m back to wind again.

There’s an awful lot of wind in my novel, too. But that’s another story…

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What it feels like.

People are strange, as Jim Morrison sang. He was right; we’re all strange (some more enjoyably so than others). But who are the strangest people of all? The ones who don’t write, that’s who.

They may well have a rich, active life filled with working and socialising (by comparison with which I’m a friendless cave-dwelling hermit), but something still puzzles me: ‘When do they do their writing?’ 

I’m lucky enough to live near a river (a thing that I’ve never appreciated fully till now), and as part of my ongoing programme of self-help (here and here for the lowdown on what I’m recovering from), I’ve committed to daily – rain permitting – bike rides on the river path, where the clouds of black flies, as you push further into the forest, and splodges of irresponsible owners’ dog-shit are leavened by birdsong, and squirrels attractively leaping on branches, and tethered horses contemplatively munching. There’s something, I’ve found, about pedalling that helps with the composition of sentences. As soon as I’ve stowed the bike back in the shed, and hydrated myself with a gallon of water, the first thing I do is reach for my diary. And even the warm wafts of dog shit that drifted towards me are happy, somehow, when I’ve written them down, because ‘warm wafts’ encapsulates just what it felt like, to me, in that moment – and just what it felt like is always the thing that I’m longing to catch.

So what do you do with all this – all this life, all this shit – if you don’t write it down? More importantly, how do you turn stinking shit into warm, sweet wafts (well, perhaps not sweet…) if you don’t churn it up, spit it out (now I’m speaking metaphorically hereand unless you’re of the canine persuasion I’m guessing, assuming, you won’t take this literally)… if you don’t rebuild your life in words? Rose Tremain knew she wanted to write at the age of eleven: ‘I remember standing in the middle of a very beautiful hayfield with the sun going down and thinking that I didn’t want just to describe how beautiful I thought that place was but I wanted to write down all my feelings about it, and then try to make some equation between that place and what I felt about it and what hopes I had for my own life. I can remember the intensity of it . . . and it seemed to me then that my life would be a life in which this process of describing and identifying feelings would play a part.’

It’s key that she talks about feelings. It isn’t an intellectual art, this fiction thing – no matter what some of the Big Boys of Literature might make you believe. In fact, one of the world’s greatest short story writers – Flannery O’Connor – had this to say on the matter: ‘There’s a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once. The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it; and it’s well to remember that the serious fiction writer always writes about the whole world.’

You have to immerse yourself in a thing to make sense of your feelings about it. And how do you capture those feelings? Through using your senses. Of which you have five (well, duh, but you might be surprised by how often we writers rely on the visual). Don’t forget sounds, or the hot pong of dog shit – but touch is their oft-neglected sibling, and one we forget at our peril. We’re not making films; we are writers. We have to plunge in past the surface to really bring feelings alive. There’s a thing called haecceity – loosely translated as ‘this-ness’ – and whether I’m right or wrong in this theory I’ve taken haecceity to mean: just what it felt like. Feeling, of course, has a dual meaning in English. Right now, as I’m writing this blog, I can feel the limp slope of my decade-old sofa, a breeze from the open window, an itch on the tip of my finger. I quite need a wee.

In short, I’m a body. I’m always a body. Your character, too, is a body. We’re often reminded that scenes must be visualised before we can write them (all true, of course), but they have to be bodily lived through as well if you’re aiming for ‘this-ness’. Helen Dunmore, I’ve found, is great at this. So is Julie Myerson. On the other hand, having read (and enjoyed) Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha I’m still none the wiser on how it would actually feel to wear a kimono, to walk in geta, to kneel at the feet of businessmen. It’s a good story, don’t get me wrong, but I couldn’t quite immerse myself, and immersion is what I most long for as a reader.

Immersion is what I long for as a writer, too. I’m sheltering from life, again, in the flimsy construct of my novel, but honestly I’m not sure what I’d do if I didn’t have these characters to give my feelings to. So I’ll say it again: all people are strange, but the people who don’t write are strangest of all. I suppose there are those who use music, or dance, or paint, but there seems to be something uniquely therapeutic about writing. In my quest to recover I’ve wandered about on the world wide web, far and wide, and one thing that I lighted upon this morning adds fuel to the fire of this ‘writing as therapy’ proposition. You might like to watch Shawn Achor’s TED talk yourself (recommended especially if you’re depressed – it’s just over ten minutes long, and well worth it), but three of the five small steps that he outlines for building your positivity involve… yes, you guessed it: writing. One is to note down three new things every day that you’re grateful for. Two is to ‘journal’ for two minutes a day on a positive experience. And three is to send a kind email to someone you know. (Four and five are meditation – for two minutes a day – and 15 minutes of cardiac exercise, if you’re curious.)

In that spirit of gratitude, then, here’s my list for the day:

1. I’m grateful for being able to feel the wind on my face whenever I want to.

2. I’m grateful for having loved, and been loved.

3. I’m grateful for this insatiable need to turn things into words, which – as one of my friends wrote yesterday, in quite possibly the nicest email I’ve ever received – is what ultimately gives life its meaning.

All that, and Nadal’s on the telly. Nice.