Wednesday, 29 August 2012

What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger

When people are in pain others have a natural impulse to try to make them feel better.  Ultimately, there are no words to do this for some pain so we resort to platitudes and clichés for want of something better to say.  'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger' is one such platitude that I came across today on twitter.  The words were slightly different but the underlying message was the same.  The person who posted seemed hurt and defensive when I said I was glad that that was the case for her but that it doesn't always work that way for everyone.  Rather than have a long discussion with her I let the subject lie, as I'm sure her intention was to be motivational rather than to be a trigger for a depressive.

Platitudes and clichés exist generally because there is some truth in them.  It is the very fact that they are oft repeated that make them clichés in the first place.  Indeed some people do find that their struggles in life have made them stronger people, better able to cope with future travails.  The crucial concept here though is that some people find this to be the case, not all.

My own struggles have had the opposite effect on me.  Many years ago I was someone who had fairly low self esteem but other than that I was a fairly together person.  I held down a responsible and stressful job, I had a good circle of friends and I generally felt that if something bad came along it would sort itself out in the end if I just kept on plugging my way through.  For the most part this approach to life worked well for me and as life threw me hurdles I cleared them or knocked them down but kept on running, never doubting that in the end everything would be alright.

Twenty years ago my husband and I made the decision to start a family, having been married for several years.  Nothing happened at first and, though upset, I assumed that eventually I would fall pregnant.  Nearly two years later I was delighted to find out I was expecting our first child.  I was overjoyed and scared and amazed and a multitude of other emotions I cannot even begin to describe.  I had a nagging fear throughout my pregnancy that something would go wrong; but, despite having symptoms of pre-eclampsia and needing an emergency caesarean section, my beautiful baby boy was born strong and healthy.  That moment when I first saw him was one of pure, unadulterated joy.  Nothing prepared me for the love I felt for him.  I thought I loved him from the moment I knew he was inside me, but that instant when I saw his face, his eyes so wide open in wonder that his wee forehead was wrinkled, I felt the most overwhelming rush of love and joy that I thought I would actually burst.

Just seven short weeks later my son died of meningicoccal septicaemia.  My world fell apart. Nothing could make this better.  There were no words of comfort that anyone could say that would make the world start turning again.  In a single day my safe, comfortable certainty that things will always work out in the end was shattered for ever.  Now I knew.  Some things are so bad that nothing can ever make everything work out alright.  There is no positive spin anyone can put on the death of a much wanted, totally adored child.  It didn't kill me but it didn't make me stronger.

I, of course, had to keep on living and no, that other much used cliché that 'time heals' isn't true either.  Time will never heal the wound that losing my son has left on my soul*, all it has done is give me time to learn how to make a place for my loss in my mind, learn how to live with it and not let it overwhelm me.

The death of my son is not the cause of my depression but it did set the scene in a way by removing that cornerstone to my life that things will always work out in the end.  As the years passed I have had many other major events, both good and bad.  I went on to have three more children, my marriage crumbled, my father died after surviving a triple bypass and several interventions to try and stem the cancer that finally claimed him, my youngest son was diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder and his challenging behaviour has been a constant in our family life for the past ten years, and through much of this I struggled to complete an Open University degree, something I'm very proud of but cost me a lot mentally.  None of this killed me but it didn't make me stronger.

The person I am today is one who knows that life doesn't always work out alright in the end.  I am someone who knows that, no matter how hard you work or how hard you try, you can't always achieve your dreams.  I cannot cope with conflict and try to avoid it at all costs, I struggle to deal with tradespeople and I have a phobia about using the telephone for all but the simplest of calls.  I am very hard on myself and I find myself wanting in many areas, I feel worthless, useless, unattractive and intrinsically unlovable, despite the evidence to the contrary that those closest to me do, indeed love me.  The pain in my life has not killed me but it has killed what little self-belief I had and taken away the stability on which my previous life was built.

So platitudes and clichés apart, what can you say to someone who is experiencing traumatic pain?  I wouldn't claim to have all the answers and certainly would not wish to speak for anyone other than myself but, for me, acknowledging that there is nothing to say to make it better is far better than trying to find the right words when there are none.  Being there for the person suffering says far more than words and showing you care by your actions beats well-meaning platitudes any day.

* I am irreligious but could not think of a more descriptive word for the part of me that religion calls the soul.

Links you may find useful

Black Dog Tribe 
Sands - Stillbirth and neonatal death charity 
Cruse Bereavement Care 
Meningitis Research Foundation - Know the symptoms, be aware

Tuesday, 28 August 2012


Last night I fell apart, went to pieces, had a breakdown; call it what you will, my bottled up feelings came to a head and I couldn't keep them in any longer.  Fortunately (for me if not for him), my fiancé was with me so my breakdown consisted of being unable to speak at all for about an hour, followed by another hour of uncontrollable crying, followed by him 'talking me down' and managing to get me to a state where I was able to function again.

You would think I would have learnt the pattern by now.  Life sucks, I can't cope with it but I have to, so .... I pretend.  I paper over the cracks and pretend like everything is, well not okay, but perhaps not completely out of control.  This strategy works well for me, strangers and friends and family alike accept the face value version that I'm coping; that things are in control.  Until, of course, the tipping point is reached and I can't keep up the pretence any longer and all at once everything becomes too much to bear.

I know I should address my overwhelming feelings before I reach the point of no return but the closer I get to overload, the less able I am to deal with it - until the inevitable happens.  Today I have still been feeling very anxious and quite low.  I've got a doctor's appointment on Thursday so I'll try to hold it together until then.  Just keep your fingers crossed that nothing (else) major appears on the horizon until then!

Sunday, 26 August 2012


It's impossible to think of depression and not associate it with feelings of sadness.  In fact, many people use the terms almost interchangeably, saying they're feeling "depressed" when they are experiencing feelings of sadness or low mood.  Feeling sad or down from time to time is perfectly normal and it would be totally unrealistic to expect to feel happy or content at all times in your life.  Depression as an illness however is something far removed from feeling sad or low, although those feelings are certainly part of it. 

When I am in a depressive episode I can wake up in the morning feeling very low, without any apparent cause for my mood.  The darkest days cannot simply be described by the word sadness, that would be like describing Mount Everest as a molehill.  Depressive feelings encompass sadness but also despair; hopelessness, that is a real lack of hope of anything being alright, ever; isolation; confusion; reckless disregard for personal safety; dislocation from the world in general; and, my case at least, anxiety.

Despite my depression, I do not confuse sadness with being depressed; I am only too aware of the difference.  It is quite possible for someone in remission from their depression to feel sad without fearing they are depressed but equally, when I have depressive feelings, it can be hurtful to have them dismissed as "everyone has bad days, it doesn't mean you're depressed", no matter how well intentioned it may be.  I have suffered with depression on and off for nine years, I think by now I can tell the difference!

One of the saddest things about having depression is the fear that I will never know what my 'normal' is again.  Before I was ill I never had to think about what 'normal' for me was; I just was.  Since losing myself to depression I don't really know who I am any more.  I have made decisions whilst thinking I was 'fine' that, looking back, I can see were so far removed from how I would have behaved had I been truly well that I can't really bear to admit to having made them at all.  I over-analyse everything now, trying to find my true feelings and my true self, and typically of depressives everywhere, I find myself to be something I don't want to find.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Don't Take My Photograph ...

Why "Don't take my photograph"?  The title of my blog is take from the Newton Faulkner song, Uncomfortably Slow, which has as its chorus the lyrics:

So don't take my photograph
Cause I don't wanna know
How it looks to feel like this

These lines sum up perfectly my feelings about photographs of myself.  I absolutely hate having my photograph taken, for whatever purpose, at any time.  Just the thought of someone taking my photograph brings on feelings of anxiety and if my picture is taken unawares the result makes me feel physically ill.  I hate how I look and try to avoid mirrors as much as possible so why on earth would I want permanent reminders of how being me looks?

My feelings about my looks are partly rational; I'm not particularly good-looking, I'm overweight and I was bullied for years as a child so feelings of low self esteem and self worth are not unsurprising; and partly irrational; I'm not disfigured nor seriously ugly and I don't scare the horses or small children.  Sometimes, on a good day, I can look in the mirror and think I don't look too bad but on other days just a glance at my reflection can make my heart sink and my mood fall through the floor.

As long as I don't actually see what I look like, I can keep up some pretence of being a 'normal' person and can interact with others on an almost normal level, as long as the conversation stays away from anything that touches on self image.  It doesn't take much to tip me into feelings of despair and self-loathing though, if anyone mentions how they look, their weight, buying new clothes or any other topic that may remind me of how gross I feel I am.

Choosing new clothes is a nightmare, it's difficult to find clothes that fit and I have to look in the mirror, under un-flattering lights, in the fitting room.  Clothes shopping is definitely not something to even attempt on a bad day!  Choosing a new hairstyle or glasses brings different challenges.  Obviously I don't need to worry about whether glasses or a hairstyle will fit but I find it virtually impossible to know what would suit me as I hate how I look so how can I gauge if this style or that will make me look less unattractive?

This post reads like an attention-seeking self-pity fest but believe me, this is not my intention.  Usually I try to keep all these negative feelings private because I know just how pathetic they make me sound.  However, if I am to try to convey the complexities, depth and nuances of depression as an illness, I cannot hide even the most pathetically self indulgent aspects thereof.  Paradoxically, I can simultaneously believe and not believe all of these feelings about my outer self at the same time.  I can think that I don't look too bad at the same time as thinking I look awful.  I can cringe at how hideous I look whilst knowing on some level that I'm not that bad.  Trying to manage and balance these conflicting and contradictory thoughts takes a lot of effort, which can lead to withdrawal and yes, my ever-present friend, exhaustion.

Sunday, 19 August 2012


I've been trying to get around to writing this post since yesterday but ironically I've been too tired!  One of the most pervasive symptoms of depression is the constant tiredness.  Way more than just feeling sleepy, this tiredness is all-consuming, getting in the way of all aspects of daily life.  When you are always tired, finding the motivation to do anything is difficult and finding the motivation to do those things that we all have to do, but hate to do, is almost impossible.  So many things get left until the last minute, or until too late; missing birthdays seems to be my speciality this year.

Sometimes the tiredness takes over at a time when it's impossible to give in to it and those days are passed in a fog of disconnectedness.  I walk along the street without being able to focus on where I'm going and the very business of putting one foot in front of the other is a struggle.  I regularly stumble and walking in a straight line is not really an option.  Walking is difficult enough but real life doesn't just stop on the difficult days, so often I also have to drive in this state.  Clearly driving without paying attention just can't happen so I have to work extremely hard to keep focused, resulting in a major (mental) crash later, and I try to keep such trips to a minimum on the worst days.

Conventional wisdom says that exercise is good for relieving the symptoms of mild to moderate depression.  Certainly on better days walking with a purpose can lift my mood but unfortunately it doesn't seem to have a corresponding effect on my exhaustion levels and so I find exercise very problematic.  Exercise for exercise sake is particularly difficult when even the everyday necessities like getting showered and dressed leave me feeling exhausted.  I need to conserve my energy for the things that simply cannot be allowed to give, such as caring for my children's needs and making sure my youngest gets to and from school safely and on time.

One of the mose pernicious effects of the exhaustion is that, on the days when it's at its worst, other symptoms of my depression are amplified.  I am at my most paranoid when I'm at my most exhausted and on days like these I find going out almost cripplingly impossible.  I cannot stand people looking at me and the thought that anyone might speak to me is intolerable.  After managing to secure some short-term therapy (now finished even though I'm not actually better ... ), I am managing to control the paranoia a bit better, even when I'm most exhausted, but it does keep threatening to come back.

You'd think that being so exhausted would mean that I could sleep at night but, no, depression won't let you away with that!  Sleep disturbance is both a symptom and a cause of depressive episodes and the associated exhaustion.  My ex-therapist was very keen for me to try out a theory she was interested in, which was to get up when I am unable to sleep and do something extremely boring and non-productive until I felt able to sleep and then return to bed.  The theory being that the brain then gets no "reward" for not sleeping and so, over time, is trained to give up and go to sleep!  Actually, I can see the logic in the theory but in the middle of the night, feeling exhausted beyond belief but unable to sleep, and with the usual self-critical monologue circling in my brain, the last thing I ever feel like is doing something I wouldn't feel like doing during the day!  Maybe someone reading this blog will feel strong enough to try her theory and let me know if it works for them.  As for me, I'll stick to my own theory that if I'm lying down at least my body is resting a bit and stay in bed until sleep claims me, unless it becomes intolerable to do so.  And if I do get up?  Well, I'm afraid it's a warm drink and/or something quiet and non-gripping on the television for me every time.

Friday, 17 August 2012

The Elephant in the Room

I have lived with depression for so long now, even I don't know what is "normal" for me any more.  How much more difficult then must it be for those who love me to gauge my mood, to know whether this time the decisions I'm making are based on what I really want or if I'm just recklessly letting others direct my actions without realising it?  The elephant in the room is my illness and they don't want to mention it but are always watching me, judging my behaviour against a scale I can't see; to try and protect me, care for me, stop me spiralling downwards.  As a result I'm defensive, secretive and see slights where none were meant.  Sadly this means I avoid my family a lot of the time.  They live far away (or to be more accurate, I do) so I can't physically see them very often but I even avoid calling so that I don't hear the worry (am I ill? am I well? am I finding things too difficult to cope?) or the judgement (is my partner treating me well enough? have I made yet another bad choice? why don't I call more often, does it mean I'm ill or that I don't care for them enough?) in their voices that is either really there or is there only in my imagination.

I love my family and I know they love me and that their concern is because they love me, not because they are trying to pick fault in my life.  When they suggest things it's because they are trying to make my life easier or better, not because they think I'm doing everything wrong.  Knowing all this why can I not feel it?  Why do I retreat into a defensive, hurt shell and feel that I was right all along and I'm useless at everything - for why else would they need to criticise?  (I'm sure they're not really criticising, it's my own mindset that makes me feel that they are).

When they ask "And how are you?", I want to die.  I feel so guilty for making them worry about me, I feel so pathetic for not showing them that obviously I'm fine; just like everyone else; life? Hell yeah, I can do that! ... only I can't, not really, and they know that just as well as I do.  The elephant is always there, sometimes in the midst of us all making it impossible not to see, even if no-one actually mentions it, other times it wanders off into a corner of the room, not so visible but still there; always there.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Depression as I see it ...

Some days I wake from non-sleep with self-loathing dripping from every pore; I almost can’t believe it when the mirror shows no sign of the inner pain I feel.  How can feeling like this look so normal?   

I saw this fantastic pictorial representation of depression the other day.  In a single image it encapsulates so much about the illness.  The fact that we feel we have to hide behind a "public face" of being "fine";  the pain that is invisible to those who see us; the fact that no matter how we look on the outside, the emotions we really feel are too painful to share, sometimes even with those closest to us.  

What the image doesn't show is that the emotion we are hiding may not just be sadness.  Depression is so much more than just feeling sad, although that of course is part of it.  The picture behind the façade could also be writhing in pain, or running round in circles trying to find a way to escape, or screaming into the wind.  No picture could capture the spiralling self-commentary spelling out just how useless, fat, ugly, stupid, worthless and trapped we feel.  No picture could show how seeing someone happy can make our heart break and how guilty and pathetic that makes us feel.  A picture may be able to depict us injuring ourselves but it cannot explain why we do it.  Trying to create outer wounds to reflect the invisible inner ones cannot be described by pictures.

Perhaps I am wrong though, and mental pain can be portrayed, maybe not in simplistic representations like the apple picture above, but in art.  Recently I visited the Picasso & Modern British Art Exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.  Picasso's cubist style is not to my taste and this exhibition did nothing to change my opinion, but the works associated with his Guernica masterpiece are different.  They are extremely powerful depictions of human pain.  Other artists too have captured human suffering in their work.  Maybe one day I too will find the medium to express the pain within, whether that would help ease the pain perhaps only time will tell.