Keep on survivingComments

I'm a survivor
I'm gonna make it
I will survive (yeah)
Keep on surviving

- Destiny's Child

A year ago to the day, in response to a piece from Patrick Rhone, I wrote how I was a mental health survivor. Not a sufferer, but a survivor. I hadn't succumbed to my past problems and was still here, still surviving.

I was writing about my problems in the past tense. The irony was, however, that I was in denial and currently suffering with further issues.

I suppose I had actually been on a downward slope since certain events in 2014 (which I won't go in to here) but things started taking a definite turn for the worse during my extended sick leave for whooping cough and subsequent throat issue. I alluded to it in the post last year but never truly accepted it.

It took about a year but I finally admitted to myself and my family that I was depressed; it was very much like the stories some people tell of coming out as gay. They're anxious about telling their loved ones as they don't know what the response will be but once they say "I'm gay" their family responds "we know, we've just been waiting for you to realise!"

My wife said pretty much the same thing as she recognised a pattern of behaviour that I probably/obviously couldn't see for myself - or wasn't prepared to. Disinterest, lethargy, becoming withdrawn whilst saying that I felt isolated from and by others.

But, like an addict, I had to realise I had a problem and want to do something about it rather than have her trying to force it from the outside. There's part of me that rebels against being told what to do and trying to get me to seek help before I was ready would likely have only pushed me even deeper.

Strangely, there is an addictive quality to depression, the sense that you are on your own and no one else understands what you're going through. It seems counter-intuitive but it becomes an entrenched position, you against the world; it's familiar and, in that sense, almost comforting but not necessarily recognised for what it is.

During a period of manic depression in my early twenties (it wasn't called bi-polar disorder back then) the depressive episodes fuelled a particularly creative period in which I wrote much of my old poetry; I needed that intense state of mind to write and losing it in happier times caused the poems to dry up.

It is likely this addictiveness that meant I took so long to admit needing help. Still, better late than never, I sought medical assistance towards the end of 2018.

While not against medication, I didn't want to be just put on pills and forgotten about so a course of therapy was agreed upon. Unfortunately, the therapy offered was purely phone based and the logistics of fitting it in around work were too complicated considering I couldn't afford any more time off after my previous long term absence.

It may seem odd to prioritise work over treatment but it was at the point where there would have been a financial impact and I have more to consider than just myself.

Fortunately, separate tests conducted by the doctor found that I have a vitamin B12 deficiency. Some symptoms of this deficiency include fatigue, forgetfulness and mood changes - I had been experiencing all of these along with the onset of anxiety, something I'd not really had before, especially in crowded places. It was most surprising, however, to discover this deficiency can also cause depression. Needless to say, I was immediately advised to start taking a supplement.

While taking B12 doesn't treat the underlying clinical depression it has definitely helped in reducing its hold over me. The bad days are less frequent and not as bad. I've taken some other steps to reduce the impact of particular triggers and things have been improving over the past few months. That I have returned to the blog is testament to that.

So, I keep on surviving.

As I said before, I don't talk about mental health as much as I should. Hell, I didn't even want to admit to myself that I had a problem. I think there is as much a personal stigma attached to it as a public one; to accept that you are broken is an incredibly hard thing to do.

But that stops right here, right now.

Part of what I want to do with the blog this time around is to further explore my depression and the reasons for it. Not to dwell on it but to acknowledge it in the hope that gaining a true understanding may help release me.

In doing so, I hope it also helps the wider conversation and, perhaps, encourages others to speak out or, at least, admit to themselves they might have a problem.

I'm not fishing for compliments or seeking sympathy. Maybe I'm seeking empathy.

I'm just one voice but it's a voice that will no longer remain silent. I'm under no illusion that I alone can fix this but if enough voices join in chorus it starts to make a difference.

And that will do for me.

Keep on surviving

Self portraitsComments

I’ve been listening to a podcast conversation between James Shelley and Patrick Rhone in which they discuss Patrick’s decision to go ”nonline” - defined as:

”No longer found on, made available to, or primarily accessed or contacted through the Internet.”

It doesn’t equate to offline, which implies someone has disconnected completely, just that they won’t be leaving physical traces, such as tweets or blog posts, or engaging in online conversations. A “read only mode” is the great way it’s described.

Patrick explains how he misses the early days of social when status updates meant status updates, they were about what you were doing, where you were - even the clichéd “what you had for lunch” posts.

The argument is that these, as boring or banal as they might seem, are an insight into you as a person and what’s going on in your life. Not retweets of what someone else is doing or saying.

Interestingly, journalling has taken over for him - the analog equivalent of these old status updates - and I can see the obvious extension from one to the other.

Patrick talks of the importance of looking back in order to reflect and remember, something we don’t do on social networks and rarely do, in any proper sense, on blogs.

I always refer to my blog as an ongoing conversation with myself so am often referencing old posts but usually as evidence to back up what I’m currently thinking.

Is that always the most constructive thing?

What I have been doing, however, is going back through the write365 project posts 1 on a regular basis to see what I was saying as they were often intensely personal and reflected my state of mind at the time.

And I think it all ties in with my struggle over pen and paper - not just what I’m writing but how.

While flicking through some of those old posts (they were all written offline and saved to Dropbox) I came across one called “Self portraits” in which I wrote that we...

”are telling our stories day by day here on social networks. The difference is most don't actually realise what we are doing or understand the potential significance of it...”

”We paint a self portrait over the course of months, years...”

and that...

”Our self portraits can only be judged on the paint we have used, the brush strokes and techniques employed, the settings we have placed ourselves in and, ultimately, whether we have signed our work. So, what story do we want to tell? What impression do we want to give?”

Listening to James and Patrick immediately connected, reaffirming the idea that a big problem online is that we are frequently telling the wrong stories.

We can tell the stories we think other people want to hear. We can tell skewed stories as we are often not truly honest with ourselves. We tell other people’s stories rather than our own, without comment, without opinion.

What use are the wrong stories and are we doing ourselves a disservice by telling them?

It’s something I’ve been conscious of for some time but only recently decided to really take proper action on.

I’m tired of telling the wrong story.


  1. The write365 project was my take on writing something, anything, every day for a year. I aimed for an average of 300 words but with no restrictions on what it was about. This was conducted on Google Plus so is no longer available online as I deleted my account. 
Self portraits

Discovering a heroine’s journeyComments

While thinking about Pitch Perfect I thought it might be fun to examine it in the context of "The Hero's Journey" popularised by Joseph Campbell.

The idea is that stories can be linked back to stages in a "monomyth" - a single arc that describes events in just about all tales. Campbell identified 17 distinct stages but it is generally accepted that not all stories will feature all 17 whilst still following the general outline.

I just thought it would be interesting to examine what many would consider a low brow, throwaway movie in this way and see how it matches up. I used a typical template found online to compare it to.

There are obviously going to be some spoilers if you've never watched it.

The ordinary world: Beca, our lead, joins college.

The call to adventure: this comes first in Beca being asked to audition for the Barden Bellas a cappella group, then in her Dad telling her she can have wonderful experiences and make great memories at college. There are also echoes in the repeated attempts by Jesse, the love interest, to get Beca to expand her horizons.

Refusal of the call: Beca first declines to audition, tells her dad she's not interested in college and wants to move to L.A. and also repeatedly rebuffs Jesse.

Meeting with the mentor: this is the shower scene with Chloe where they sing together for the first time.

Crossing the threshold: Beca's reluctant agreement with her father to give college a try for a year, combined with the above shower scene, leading to her audition for the Barden Bellas.

Tests, allies and enemies: allies is obviously the rest of the Bellas, tests is the struggle to find her place in the group when she feels restricted by its leader, Aubrey, and enemies is clearly defined as the rival group The Treblemakers.

The ordeal: improvisation during a performance leads to an argument and Beca leaving the Bellas. There is also a big bust up with Jesse leading her to reassess how she is living.

The road back: Beca's return to the Bellas fuelled by her realisation that she's been pushing people away and needs to do something about it.

The reward: there are a couple of things here - getting to play her music on the college radio station (but this is a bit hollow in the context of the above) and the return to the Bellas in a position of authority. We might also consider her awakening to her mental state as a reward.

The resurrection: when the Bellas turn to Beca and say "what do we do?" thus putting her in charge.

Return with the elixir: Beca and the Barden Bellas winning the a cappella contest.

This may all seem a bit overkill for such a film, and we certainly don't think about this when we sit down to enjoy it, but being able to relate back to such core tenets helps to explain why we do enjoy it and why it works so well as a story.

Discovering a heroine’s journey

Routine, behaviour and time

This was my first week back to work after a month off sick with a throat and vocal chord infection that had me unable to utter much more than a mouse-like squeak.

During that period without the routine of work I had a lot of time to think and re-evaluate what I do and how I do it.

This has been an ongoing process ever since the decision to return to the blog as my home on the web - and more recently in the decision to stop posting on Twitter and back Micro.blog.

Still, it goes deeper than that.

The change of routine has lead to a change in behaviour and subsequent introspection around this change.

My commute is roughly two hours each way, door to door, during which time I have traditionally watched episodes of various TV shows on my phone.

Not being in that environment for four weeks has meant not watching the usual complement of episodes, probably around 30 across all the different shows. In the past this may have lead to a definite case of FOMO but not now.

Curiously, I haven't missed it and suspect it was largely done more through habit than any actual desire.

This has made me consider what I am actually doing with my time, the balance between consumption and creation, and to consider the "garbage in, garbage out" cycle.

Consumption versus creation

Everything we do is in a battle for our time and attention; time spent doing one thing is time not available to everything else.

We need to work out our priorities, find compromise and balance.

There are certain fixed demands, time spent at work for example, so we look to manage the remainder as best we can. This isn't an easy task and we often go for the lazy option, the path of least resistance, especially when we are tired.

I was reading a self-paced study module about time management and one passage struck me in particular:

for everything we do we should be asking "what do I want to get from this?"

Why are we doing it and what do we hope it will achieve or provide us?

There are some activities we have no option but to do and the why becomes moot yet, we can still ask what we personally what to gain from doing them.

We consume for entertainment, learning, or to just pass the time - a distraction.

We can get in to a trap of thinking that time spent on consumption is wasted if we are aiming to create. Consumption is a required part of the process but we need to apply the "what do I want to get from this" test to it.

And this is core to the introspection I find myself engaged in. Do I want to waste that all too precious time with garbage or do I seek out quality input.

Distraction

Distraction gets bad press, we focus on its negative aspects but there is an inherent duality to it. On the one hand we hate it for interfering with what we should be doing but, on the other, we need it to de-stress and recharge the mind.

How many times are we advised, when stuck on a problem or at a blank page, to actively seek distraction? Wash the dishes, walk the dog, do something with your hands that occupies the conscious mind, allowing it to relax and reset while the subconscious works in the background.

Our minds operate at different levels but we usually need to quieten only some of them.

When trying to concentrate we are advised to play the same piece of music on repeat in the background - a focused distraction to block all others that just becomes part of the ambience allowing us, in turn, to block it out whilst silencing those levels of consciousness that react to such distractions.

Every night I used to tweet out what #sleepmusic I was using to help me drift off. Taking the time and effort to ensure the selection was varied enough became a pointless distraction so now I always use the same piece.

The familiarity and regularity is far more effective.

Time

We can't be "on" all the time; there will always be periods when we need to get away from it all, when we need mindlessness to escape and completely de-clutter.

Beyond this, however, we need to question the best use of our time and ask what do I want to get from this?

Routine, behaviour and time

It’ll be different this time

The clichéd (but incorrect) definition of insanity is to repeatedly display the same behaviour believing it will elicit different results, despite all evidence to the contrary.

It's wrong but it illustrates a point.

I was reminded of this when in a queue to get on the underground. Person after person trying to swipe their card at the barrier only for it not to register. Having failed they were forced to move to another gate.

The next in line sees this happen but thinks, hopes, assumes the problem lay with the previous person's card. Multiple failed swipes later this person, too, has to move on.

And so it continues.

Each individual in the queue with the misguided belief that it will work for them even though they have witnessed what happened to those in front.

How much evidence do we need before we accept it, before we are willing to acknowledge that what should happen just isn't going to?

We are so caught up in the Pavlovian cycle of perform action A, expect result B that we are caught by surprise when result B does not occur. We are temporarily thrown by it, frozen in our disbelief.

How deeply entrenched is our behaviour that we must experience things four, five times, maybe more, before it occurs to us that we must try something else?

Without change this time will not be different.

It’ll be different this time