Monthly Archives: January 2020

What’s the blues when you’ve got the greys?

Though the corners are lit

The dark can return with the flick of a switch.

It hasn’t turned on me yet

Yet.

 

Not Miserable – Frightened Rabbit

 

 

 

I’d intended to update this regularly throughout the month but I have been battling my third book and it looked as though I was about to lose the fight. But now I have risen just as they were about to call the match and I am spitting blood and I’m bruised and it’s taken everything I have to get back up and keep throwing punches and I’m overextending my metaphors like crazy. Soon I’ll have knocked this sucker out and I’ll hand it to my editor and she will gasp and she will say, Amy, what is this? And I’ll be like, My masterpiece.

Anyway. I’ll give you a very quick summation of my depression and how Jillian Michaels helped me change my life! You can cringe at this but it is the honest to god truth.

It was 2015 and I was at what I thought was rock bottom (until 2018 came along and proved rock bottom was actually quicksand and I could sink forever if I didn’t reach out a hand for help).

But 2015 was shite. I had graduated but couldn’t get a job which was any more financially or spiritually rewarding than those available to me before my degree (call centres, retail, customer service). And now I had huge student debt. I had been rejected so many times that when I thought I’d really nailed an interview at a university they called to tell me I hadn’t got it I just…lost it. I remember sobbing uncontrollably on the floor at the foot of my bed and hitting my head against the wood as hard as I could. I hated myself. I hated my life. I felt worthless. I felt like there was no hope for me, I would never own a house or have a job which made me happy, or ever BE happy. I’d never go on holiday or be able to treat people I loved to nice things. I felt like a parasite.

220px-Dennis_Nilsen

Job Centre creep extraordinaire.

Longer ago, before I went back to university in my twenties, I was signed on the dole and had to have weekly meetings with this horrid little man who liked to smirk and mock me for failing every week to get a job. One week I told him I was going back to Uni to do creative writing in a few months so asked what that meant as far as the dole went and when I said creative writing he laughed at me. What a dick. I digress to tell you this not to say “now who’s having the last laugh!” because I long stopped caring about that little man. I say this because Dennis Nilsen also worked in a job centre so pay no mind to these creepy little men. My dickhead wasn’t even interesting enough to be a serial killer. The height of his cruelty was laughing at shy, underweight young women who had ambition. Nobody writes books about guys like that.

Back to 2015. I loved Jillian Michaels. Her exercise DVDs were the best part of my days. They kept me going. They gave me routine. They changed my life. So Rhys bought me a ridiculously expensive VIP ticket to see and meet her when she came to Cardiff. She gave a motivational talk, not about weight loss but about life and pursuing what you care about. She said, “If you have a why, you can tolerate any how.” It was a revelation. I had been doing things backwards. I’d been struggling to get a job I didn’t really want just so that I could relax and start writing a book which had been growing and growing in my brain for a year.

Suddenly I realised that no job was actually right for me. Writing was what gave me purpose, what I loved and the only thing I cared whether I was successful at or not.

I started writing the book the next day. I applied for jobs, I got one at an HMRC call centre (another job which didn’t require a degree but which paid so much better than anything else I’d applied for and had better working conditions) and I wrote before and after work and on weekends.

I’d never seen that side of myself before. Being committed to something. Returning to it every day. Sometimes it was so thrilling to sit down and write. I was writing the book I wanted to read, a book no one else in the world could write for me. It was all mine. Anything could happen. Sometimes it was bloody awful and I’d sit there and think, This is the worst book anyone has ever written. I want to quit. I’m no good at this.

The thing is about being a writer, though, and all of them will say the same: it’s a compulsion. You need to do it. Without it you are miserable, even if sometimes the writing itself makes you miserable. I’d been miserable since leaving university because I’d shut down that part of myself. Cranking it back up again was exhilarating but often left me feeling very exposed and vulnerable. Like, what if I’m awful at the thing I care about the most? This is such a hard wall to push through, especially with all the negative thoughts depression and anxiety like to contribute.

Exercise helped me every day. It still does. I like to think of it as the one time of the day I don’t have to think about writing but sometimes I can be exercising and my mind will wander and all that energy will feed my creative mind and it will unlock the key to some part of my book I’ve been struggling with. Sometimes distraction is the best way to solve a problem and exercise is a very healthy distraction.

bekind

Art by Scott Hutchison.

You all know the rest. I am here now, writing at home, a full-time writer. My creative instinct was right: that book I’d not been able to stop thinking about was a good idea. Other people wanted to read it. And they did, loads of them, in countries all over the world. It’s nuts to think that someone like me, who has always had such awful problems with my mental health, could find a way to manage it well enough to write a novel (which is seriously no joke – another thing writers will back me up on, that shit is hard work).

Exercise won’t cure your mental health problems but it gives you tools you can employ in the rest of your life. Knowing how to break through tough barriers, having a routine (it’s hard to get up and get dressed if you don’t have a job and you’re depressed – exercise helped me get ready for my day). It can help you free your mind, if only for half an hour, from the grind of depression and maybe leave you feeling better, more energised. If not, then at least you can say you did something that day towards feeling better. It will help you sleep better later on when the negative thoughts start whirling around as you put your head on the pillow.

If you are reading this in the midst of a bad bout of depression and think, Well this is all well and good but I can’t even get out of bed right now and all this seems a thousand steps away from where I am right now: I get it. Wait for a break in the clouds and then start small. There will always be a break in the clouds. We forget this when all we can see and feel is grey but I promise there will be a break and it is then you must capitalise on it. Go for a walk. Do a five or ten minute workout on YouTube. Do yoga. These are the times you try to establish new routines because later, when the clouds come back, you are ready for them. You know how to carry on, you have your armour, you are stronger than before. Just carry on. Always. And one day you will look back and be grateful to yourself that you did because wonderful things happen, incredible people appear in your life and you will feel so much love and you won’t even fully remember the bit where it was all grey, where you were sinking. You will be glad to be here and you will know that next time it comes back for you, if it comes back for you, you have beaten it before and you can do it again. I know you can, because I can. And I will, as many times as I need to, because I have a whole list of whys and I’m working on my hows, always exercising to keep myself ready for the next fight.

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*Title also a lyric by Frightened Rabbit.

 


RED January 2020

Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final

Rainer Maria Rilke

 

I wish I could say I got this quote from reading Rilke but really I got it from watching the film Jojo Rabbit. Either way, it’s still true, still vital, still genius.

The truth is that I can’t remember a time before I felt awkward, anxious, different. What seemed easy and natural to other people never felt easy to me. Example: I was kicked out after one day of nursery school because I wouldn’t stop screaming and crying. They told my parents not to bring me back. I don’t remember this, but I do remember going to look around my school for the first time, a private Roman Catholic school with kind nuns and high brick walls and big black gates.

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Evidence of my one and only day of nursery.

I remember my parents leaving me with a teacher while they took a tour of the school and I remember feeling like they were never going to come back. I remember crying, sitting on a teacher’s knee, no amount of reassurance could convince me I would ever see my family again. And this continued for years. Every day I arrived at school kicking and screaming and clinging to my bampi’s legs begging not to be left behind. I remember how all the other children seemed fine and I remember thinking there must be something wrong with them, not me.

By the end of each day I would be fine but every morning the pattern started again. Why didn’t I believe that I would go home at the end of the day, when so far each day had ended that way?

I was sick a lot. Ear infections. But this was preferable to the overwhelming anxiety I felt at having to go to school.

At the time, I would never have been able to articulate this and so it became something I kept to myself, my behaviour totally inexplicable to anyone else who saw it. To them, maybe it looked like tantrums, recalcitrance. To me, it was a force I had no control over, didn’t understand, and would have loved to break. Every September I braced myself, told myself it would be different, I would be able to handle it, but without knowing what it was that scared me so much I always fell back into the fear.

It was in primary school I started to have these weird moments where my brain would glitch. I would feel very suddenly detached from my surroundings, everything would take on a surreal edge. This would last about thirty seconds, maybe a minute. A thought would flash in my mind: I am not supposed to be here. Then I would quickly scroll through the places I usually felt most comfortable: my nan’s house, my home. I’m not meant to be there either, the thought would continue. I would feel lost, out of place, with nowhere to go. All this only in a brief moment of time. A physical reaction, my heart beating faster, feeling the world sway beneath me, and then, as soon as it came, it would be gone again. I would be back in the moment.

What was that? I’d wonder briefly. Each time it happened was like the first time it happened. These moments continued until sometime in my mid-twenties when all of a sudden they stopped.

I wonder if it had something to do with gaining some autonomy, over where I was and what I was doing and who I was with.

Not that there was anything wrong back then. I was lucky. I was well-loved and people were caring and understanding. No children made fun of me for still crying when I came to school every day.

Not even when I started at my first high school. When I vividly remember being forced to go to a class, physically unable to stop crying, some panic I didn’t understand had control and I didn’t know how to stop it. As I cried and people looked, the teacher gave me a sheet of A4 paper and told me if I sat on it then I would stop crying. Confused, I did sit on the piece of paper. It didn’t work. I don’t know if he was being cruel or clumsily kind. No one was mean to me about it. Sometimes this memory creeps up on me and I cringe, groan. It is agonisingly embarrassing. It’s just one of the hundreds of unwanted, intrusive memories which catch me by surprise several times a day.

What if I had had CBT then? Not last year, but when I was a child, a teenager. What if someone had talked to me about how to manage my feelings and how to harness logic instead of letting my emotions run wild?

Of course, all of this led to worse depression, worse coping mechanisms (drug problems, binge drinking, self-harm, ditching school all together) which only made me hate myself more, made it harder to climb out of the hole I was digging for myself.

I’ve decided to be honest about this because maybe it will make a difference. As often as I’ve wanted to give up, I’m still here. The thing is, from the outside, it might seem as if my life is great. Even if I look at it from the outside I can see how good I have it. So why don’t I feel good? What is feeling good? How can I get there?

I’ve found ways to manage my depression. Healthy ways. One of them is exercise. It’s not a cure – and I think this is why so many of us are resistant to it whenever a doctor suggests it when we ask for help – but it has shown me I have strength and motivation I never knew I had. I’m going to write more blogs over the course of January while I complete my exercise challenge.

I’m trying other things, too. Things I’ll describe in more detail over the month. What has worked and what hasn’t. I’m trying to get better, I’m trying to make tiny changes to earth. I hope you will join me on the way.

This song makes me happy: I Wanna Get Better

Donate to Mind via my Just Giving page here: RED January 2020 JustGiving Page