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Saturday, 1 November 2014

Stress, Depress, Compress, Distress...and Cake; eat and repeat. Recovery Part 2

Biscuiteers' biscuits. Mr. Sleepy or Little Miss Sunshine. Or both. Which one am I?

One of the definitions of the word 'recover' is 'to regain consciousness'. (Etymonline - Recover). It strikes me that the minute I left the hospital that is what I was doing. Noticing, for the first time again, that it was autumn and wet, rust-coloured leaves matting the roads and squelching slightly underfoot. Becoming aware, again, of people in cars going to places, (to where?) traffic which had to be considered and negotiated on the path home.

The Road Home. Life Outside.

And at home, there were the physical elements of regaining consciousness. I may have complained about my pants being carelessly ripped off in a previous post: now I had to consider how on earth with a fractured spine and cast-bound elbow I was going to get them out of their drawer and get them on myself. (Tip: imagining myself to be David Beckham - in his footballer role, obviously, rather than in every other advert / shot of him, pectorals glistening in the light - I used my right foot to nudge the pants or other item of clothing to a wall or the bottom edge of the drawers and then lift them up to where my functioning right hand picks them up. This works well with clothing, less well with cutlery...let's not talk about plates.)

Admittedly my style of movement is less balletic, more pathetic

Now in my fourth week at home, things are much different. Gradually the pills I'm taking for the various physical ailments are ebbing away, and I find myself looking with curious doubt at the small collection of medicinal treats that are lined up for my consumption. Surely there should be more? There were more yesterday, I think, no?

Continuing in the background to all this, and something I haven't mentioned for a few weeks, I realise, is my mental health. It has to be said that a fall which rendered me nearly paralysed / dead and unable to function, except as a stand-in for those charming silver fellows who frequent our tourist sites for a good few months, did a great (albeit extreme) job of distracting me from feelings of depression etc. When I cried that Monday, alone and at home, I was grieving for a life - my life - nearly lost. It wasn't depression as such, and the day-to-day administration role of caring for myself (even with all the help from my wonderful husband) distracted me from my inner feelings and allowed me to 'avoid' my depression altogether. I do love that verb: one which elicits delicious suckings-in-of-breath and eyebrow-knitting from therapists.

Hanging around the Tate Modern

I've been trying to strengthen my back through walking as my arm prevents normal swimming until the fracture has healed. On these slow, measured, and - frankly - nervous walks, I gave myself pause. Walking and exercise have recently been the focus of much media attention in relation to positive mental health, and it's true that when I exercise I do feel happier afterwards, even if I hated the thought of going, childishly donning Wellington boots with lower lip stuck out, huffing my way into my waterproof and sighing at taking my keys, opening the door, closing and locking it. Despite the inner tantrum, the fresh air and light from the sky - even when raining - always gets me in the end, especially if I play my favourite songs while I walk or listen to the Woman's Hour podcast.

Richmond in beautiful October 2014. Fresh air freshening my spirits

Joking about tantrums aside, one element of how I experience depression is as a thick toxic fog which overcomes my body. I think briefly about getting out of bed or (if it's a better day) off the sofa, but then I think about the physical movement required to undertake these seemingly small activities, and the fog plumes into my legs and weights them down like leaden poison. Having a shower becomes the achievement of the day: Now I can go back to bed, I have got up and cleaned myself, changed my clothes and dried my hair. I'm done. All of this effort merely to present myself as a normal human being is done in secrecy from the majority of the world I inhabit, demonstrated by the fact that I have only taken time off for depression this year, although I've suffered from it for more than twenty years, on and off.

From Foetal to Fabulous

There are many other elements, but this fog is a constant when I am ill. However, as I mentioned, I've taken no time off for depression before this year. I feel the fog and do it anyway. Out of bed. Shower. Wash hair. Dry self. Brush teeth, Moisturise. (Okay, maybe I don't always moisturise, that's a little too much.) Dress, Apply makeup. Have breakfast. Check bag for essentials. Put on shoes and coat. Leave the house with bag. Travel to work (train, bus, crush...). Work. Talk to colleagues. Attend / organise meetings. Produce work outputs. Leave work. Travel from work - (repeat train, bus, crush.) Walk home. Crash,

Liz Obert - an artist who herself suffers from bipolar disorder (previously called manic depression) has created a series of portraits of fellow sufferers. She presents their polarised selves - those which are out in the world performing their jobs or engaging with people; those which are deliberately staying away from the world and truly experiencing their illnesses in full force. Here (above and below) are some examples from her work (below). You can also read the full article here.

Obert herself, on the left swaddled in a blanket, or the right, dressed for the public eye

At the moment, I am regularly sleeping or resting to heal my physical wounds, so the most evasive symptom of depression is not my unwillingness to be outside in the world, but my surprise that I exist in it at all. Apparently, I am part of the world, too. I can go into a shop and buy a packet of crisps or bottle of water and no one shouts "Look at her, she is clearly mad!" or "Cheer up" or "Pull yourself together."

My friends have also been marvellous, suddenly faced with a friend who is - quite frankly - a proper mess of physical and mental wounds. I am constantly amazed, delighted and grateful for the love and support from the people around me - especially as I find it difficult to accept that people truly do like and care for me. The efforts to visit and spend time with me (and the biscuits and cake, I have to mention) have been a fantastic boost to my recovery, and test me to stay with the world and take part in it - even from home.

Afternoon tea - a gift from friends. I narrowly avoided temptation to scoff the lot.

Added to this, no one can see my physical injuries either, except at the end of a walk where I'm visibly limping or wincing at times, tired out by the exertion. No one apart from my husband is treated to the depression 'show', though (even, mostly, the professional therapists and doctors I work with). I rarely show any signs of depression at work or at critical times. Perhaps I've just become too skilled at hiding it. I get up and on with it, and only days later suddenly notice that I am exhausted because of the pretence of being fine I have acted out, convincing even myself of its veracity.
At other times, though, in the company of strangers, I feel the vulnerability and cannot stifle it. I once frightened the life out of my poor dental hygienist by bursting into tears when she advised me to use an electric rather than normal toothbrush. I also once cried at Richard and Judy, but that seems more rational, somehow.

In homage to Obert, here are three photographs of me:

In bed (left); making scones (centre); ready to go out (right)

In the above, I've copied Obert's method, adding a third interim shot of me dressed in at home, cosy clothes and doing something productive but not work. But I want to challenge Obert's position. In which of these photographs am I depressed? Can you tell? Which ones do I look happier in, or which ones evoke happier connotations? What do your first instincts tell you?

The answer to the first question is: I'm depressed in all of them. I would like to be curled up in bed, but am making the effort to dress and function, and finally to do myself up and go out into the world to fulfil work / socialising or whatever is expected. I know the centre and left pictures show activities that make me better (it's called behavioural activation in psychological terminology - where the very act of doing something as simple as getting dressed, to the more complex of going to work and coping with travel, many people and the demands of the job - help me to re-enter the world and realise that despite my low feelings I am still capable and can perhaps even enjoy these activities).

However, It could just as likely be: I'm depressed in none of them. With my fractured vertebra and elbow, x-rays will clearly indicate when the fracture is healed, but there's no chemical test to show that I'm back to my bouncy self and ready to take on all the work and socialising I can get my hands on. I am trying to be more honest, but it is a continual effort - and at work especially I just want to get on with my job rather than worry that a frown or sigh betrays to them that I'm in the doldrums and will collapse under the stress and strain of work at any moment.

The world outside wakes, and so do I.

In the meantime it's a step by step process - physically and mentally. For my dear friends from hospital who are suffering worse than I am with depression, every day won is a triumph. We are all keeping going somehow. I do what I can to get out into the sunshine to heal my wounds, and the day begins by just noticing the world outside, and reminding myself that I am, in fact, in it and continue to be so. 

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