Learning to Live again

Maybe everyone feels that work gets in the way of living. Certainly, there have been enough books, seminars and websites devoted to getting a better work / life balance, to suggest they do. It’s difficult to say whether it’s harder for me than most, or if other people just keep quieter. For me, the draining exertion of having a full time teaching job means that I have never really had time for much else, save the grabbing of a brief walk in the country or a night out getting too drunk to enjoy the rest of the weekend. Evenings are spent too comatose to do anything other than watch awful TV. I eat badly, because I don’t have the energy to cook. Even the long summer holidays don’t help much. I tend to sleep all day and drink all night, not sure what else I really want to do with my life. When I thought about it, if I ever had time to think about it, I figured I’d make that change tomorrow. Tomorrow I’d learn how to have a full and useful life. Tomorrow never comes, of course.

Part of my rehabilitation, after what I now think of as that old-fashioned thing a‘nervous breakdown’, has been about learning to do even the basic things again. Learning how to set an alarm to get yourself up, even if you don’t have to be anywhere anytime soon. Learning how to cook meals that are healthy as well as tasty, learning how to shop for those. Learning the importance of reading, resting, smiling. Once I could manage the simpler things, including leaving the house once in a while, I set about finding things I could do and actually enjoy. It’s a difficult thing when you are in the midst of darkness and depression to ever believe you will enjoy something again. Sometimes, these things came in sporadic impulses. Decorating a basket for my new bike, making bracelets, listening to music. Now, I try to make them deliberate and thoughtful. I have started Tap dancing lessons, something (I noted with horror as I said it) I haven’t done for twenty years (when did I get that old?!). They run ballet lessons too, which I was nervous about going to until I met a fifty-something-year-old who went, and I figured if she could do it, I might be able to – so I’m hoping to go this week. I cleared out the boxes that have been under our bed since we moved, and have spent the afternoon uploading old favourites from CD to iTunes. I took my bike out on the road, and felt the wind in my hair, I had a bath, I thought about joining the library. It feels so freeing to have the time and energy to begin to feel alive again. To feel thoughtful, spiritual and creative. Surely that is really the point of life? – even as I say that I realise what a spoilt-Westerner thing that is to say. We have all our basic needs covered, so we imagine we are also owed meaning and happiness.

But what next? I don’t want to go back to that way of ‘living’. Surely no one wants to work full time. (What a terrible world we have created where average couples don’t have the choice anymore to have one spouse stay home, and still afford a mortgage). When will I know that I am ready to go back to work? Surely, the light-headed nausea I feel at the thought of going anywhere near my place of work, won’t get any better with time. Will it?

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Things to make and do

One of my favourite parts of Paul’s speech at our wedding was when he talked about how much he loved to come home to find me, surrounded with scraps of paper or bits of card, working on ‘a project’. I’ve tidied up now, so he won’t be coming home to a total mess this evening, but I have enjoyed spending the day creating.

It has always been a dream of mine to have the sort of funky, flowery bicycle basket that you might see in Amsterdam – or North London. So, this morning I set out in the rain to buy all the supplies I’d need. The basket was an easy enough purchase, despite the rain. I popped into AW Cycles which is just down the road towards Wimbledon. It’s always made me smile that local bike shops never seem to have enough space in them for any customers, let alone the space to wheel your bike in for them to look at it, but somehow these guys seem happy in the eternally dark and cramped hovel where they work. They were very polite and helpful.

Then, into Tooting, where I knew I’d seen some excellent varieties of plastic flowers in a Pound Shop there. Unfortunately, the shop had been closed down. The windows brandished notices on all the windows that the shopkeepers hadn’t paid the rent, and the landlord had seized back the property. [Curious how my sympathy lay immediately with the shopkeepers and not the landlords, says a lot about our property law over here…].

So, I went on to Tooting Market, which I’m told was quite the place to be in the sixties, but which is now painfully down-market and average. But they had flowers, and they even gave me a discount (I’ve never been much of a barterer!)

I spent the afternoon with a needle, thread, picture wire and beads; and ended up feeling pretty darn smug.

I started with some leaves, attached with embroidery thread. Then added the flowers using wire we had for hanging picture frames. The completed basket is pictured at the top of this post, though I added a lining from an old Cath Kidston bag I had. Not sure if I’ll keep it in or not. It might be kitsch overkill…

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‘And the bicycle?’ I hear you ask…. Well, with the money I’m saving not commuting into work everyday, I have bought myself a brand new bicycle to play with. It should be here in the next week or so!

 

Torn at the shoulder

The first time I went to the doctors with symptoms of depression, I was 19. My parents dragged me from my bed during the summer holidays and made me go. “We wondered when this would happen” they said, glumly. The doctor prescribed me a book. When I went back to see him two weeks later, he asked “How did you find the book?”
“I was too depressed to read it” I replied.
He put me on Prozac.
Many of my friends, when I returned for my third year at University, were happy to see how much better I seemed. I got a routine together. Having ham sandwiches everyday at midday made me feel as if I had suddenly found the meaning of life. I was overjoyed to finally be working like a ‘normal person’ again. Others were worried; the pills gave me such enthusiasm for life, I found myself in complicated and compromising situations. Before long, things didn’t seem quite so rosey anymore. I don’t remember when I stopped taking the medication, only that I didn’t check first with any doctor and just didn’t top up my prescription one day.
Since then, I have been on anti-depressants several times. People who have never experienced real depression before, won’t be able to begin to understand how lonely and frightening it can be. Here is not the time or place for me to explain it, suffice it to say when someone who is depressed is at their lowest points, even getting out of bed can seem like the most terrifying ordeal they can imagine. I am not a weak person. I am not useless, or stupid, or mentally impaired in any way other than the world sometimes seems to want more from me than I can give, and that is when I retreat into the comfortable darkness of this illness. It is all I have known for more years than I can remember.
This time, the darkness has taken a different form. It isn’t that I am miserable, per se, simply that everything seems a little too difficult for me and I am suffering levels of anxiety that are higher even than my normal levels. The idea of doing my day job, a job I have loved and excelled at for many years, is just too horrible. It is a scary place to be. The anxiety I feel about doing anything at all, brings with it some very real physical symptoms, which in turn, make me worry more. If you have never had a panic attack, you won’t understand how life-threatening they can seem.
Luckily I am surrounded by wonderful friends and family and understanding colleagues. I have a group of different professionals helping me out, and I have a plan to get back on my feet. It won’t be an easy journey, but it will be made a great deal more difficult by people who refuse to understand this illness – a disease that is probably more physical (i.e. in my brain) than emotional (in my head) – is anything more than an affliction suffered by people who are a bit spoiled and wet. Hopefully, I won’t meet any of them along the way.
This is a very public place to share this, and that is quite deliberate. If I had cancer, had broken my leg, or was suffering any other kind of illness I would probably not feel in the least embarrassed to write about it here. The fact that I thought twice about writing about depression is because of the stigma it has attached to it. But I refuse to be ashamed of this illness because it is as real and debilitating as any other sickness and, more than that, it could affect anyone, and nobody brings it upon themselves.