It’s not cheating to ask for help

Not long ago I wrote about not wanting to go to therapy again, seeing it as a sign of my own personal failure. I felt similarly about resorting to drugs. When I came off citalopram last time, in 2014, it was a point of pride for me. I was proud that I had reached a point where I felt comfortable to go it alone, to swim by myself without the buoyancy aid. Without cheating.

Four weeks ago I hit a low and asked my GP for help. I was tearful, weeping every day for no reason. I was melancholy, down, and couldn’t explain why. I couldn’t concentrate, was snapping at Liam, was ruminating about things that might happen in the future. I felt totally hopeless about my life. A failure in my personal life and in my career. An almost constant soundtrack in my mind of ‘you’re worthless, you’re rubbish, you won’t amount to anything, you’re going to fail, the rest of your life will be miserable.’

My brain had been whirring faster and faster in recent months, like a washing machine on its final spin. It had taken over everything. My thoughts. My feelings. My perceptions. My work. My relationships. It felt out of control, and I was getting frustrated. I have my therapy ‘toolbox’ of exercises from my Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) courses. I use mindfulness too, and practice yoga several times a week. Nothing was helping anymore.

That’s when it clicked and I remembered something. Something is physically wrong with my brain – the synapses, the chemicals, I don’t know – and it’s not something that’s ‘my fault’. I can do yoga every day, but it won’t always fix those biological breakdowns.

It no longer felt like ‘cheating’ to ask for antidepressants, just like a diabetic wouldn’t see at as cheating to ask for insulin.

Reasons to Stay Alive

I recently read the inspiring Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig. One of his points is that depressives often feel guilty about their illness because their life is ostensibly great. They have people who love them, great jobs, money, and so on. Why should they feel down? They should feel grateful, not melancholy! But depression isn’t necessarily ‘about’ anything like this. You don’t have to be poor or lonely or unemployed to be depressed, it hurts people from all walks of life. It’s also the double blow of depression that people who have it feel even worse because of this guilt.

So I stopped feeling guilty, stopped blaming myself for a moment. It’s not my fault I’m not coping, I realised. And there’s no shame in asking for the help I need.

My GP prescribed me antidepressants along with an online course. Four weeks later I feel ridiculously better. It’s like someone’s turned the soundtrack off. Sometimes I hear it, quietly, but I can almost always turn the volume down to just a faint hum. I’m smiling more and I feel more upbeat. The worries about the future are coming less frequently, and are less all-consuming and terrifying. I’m calmer. Things that felt like they meant everything – like what my career will look like in five or ten years – are now just things I’m curious about; they don’t define me or my self-worth.

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When I feel like this – light, comfortable, normal – it’s almost impossible to remember what depression feels like, or what my brain was up to just four short weeks ago. I frequently forget and take for granted how fantastic it is to feel this way. Not happy, not sad, just… free.

If you’re fortunate enough never to have had a mental illness, consider yourself blessed. And if you struggle with it, don’t blame yourself for struggling, ask for help, and never feel guilty about it.

 

How to stop feeling depressed

It’s Sunday, 9.31am, and I’m on my yoga mat. I’m right in the middle of the room, surrounded by 49 other yoga addicts. Nothing unusual about that, except that I’m crying. In the quiet stillness of dozens of people intensely focusing on their breath I reach gingerly for my sweat towel. Hoping the teacher isn’t wondering why I need it already, thirty seconds into the class, I dab at my damp face.

A few hours later, I’m in a proper slump. Tears are pouring out of my red raw eyes and I can’t summon the energy to do anything at all but cry.

‘Show yourself some love,’ the websites say. ‘Get a manicure!’. Willing myself to get better, I get dressed and head for my local nail salon. I reach the end of my driveway when I stop. My legs are refusing to take me any further. I look around, see my car, and walk towards it, thinking vaguely that I’ll drive to the salon instead. In the car it is hot, almost unbearably hot. Yet my hands are refusing to switch on the engine, to get the air conditioning circulating. Droplets of sweat are prickling around my forehead and I can’t tell if it’s sweat or tears running down my cheeks now. I realise I’m not getting my nails done today.

In the darkness, protected by my duvet once again, I go back to my search results. ‘How to stop feeling down’. That’s what I found myself googling, again, today. It’s the same websites I end up on every time, clicking with hope that they will fix whatever this is I’m feeling. I leave frustrated every time.

‘When you’re not depressed, write down things that you love about your life,’ one says, ‘to cheer you up when you’re feeling down.’ Not much use when a waterfall has taken up residence under your eyelids.

‘Get enough sleep, eat healthy!’ others chime in. Again, no use right now.

Even the articles that offer suggestions of things to do right now aren’t helpful. Do the housework? Go for a run? Are you kidding me? My body feels like it’s in a vat of golden syrup and I can barely take three breaths in a row without hyperventilating and you think I’m going for a jog?

It’s my husband who helps me find my breath and put a stop to the puffy eyes this time. A hug, a cup of tea, and baking a cake together provides the emotional comfort blanket I need to step out of bed and leave the real blanket behind.

If I’ve been struggling to find the help-me-right-now resources I need in the middle of a sudden, short-term attack of the blues/anxiety/depression, I doubt I’m alone. So, what advice would I give to myself if it happens again? (Hint: it’s not any of these irritating things people with depression hear all the time.)

Here are my 8 steps for next time:

  1. Find your breath. Breath in for 1-2-3-4, pause, breath out for 1-2-3-4, pause. Keep going until your breath calms down.
  2. When you’ve found your breath, find your nearest family member or friend and ask for a hug.
  3. Found them? Good, now ask them to make you a cup of tea. All alone? Pop the kettle on and pour yourself a brew.
  4. Take the sting out of the attack by looking at cute, funny and wonderful things online. These are good go-to pages: 30 reasons to smile, 24 things to cheer you up and another 16 for good measure.
  5. Take some practical action by booking yourself into a yoga class – perhaps later today, or maybe tomorrow, depending on how you feel.
  6. Once you’ve done that, set an alarm and allow yourself to wallow for as long as you think you’ll need (up to a day – don’t worry about tomorrow right now, we can deal with tomorrow tomorrow). Jump in wholeheartedly. Binge watch Netflix and binge eat chocolate. Don’t beat yourself up about not being strong; accept this is what you need right now. Order a pizza.
  7. When the alarm goes off, stop. Get off the sofa or out of bed, put on some 90s pop and vacuum the house. Plan out your calendar for the next week with a good balance of protected alone time, social time, yoga time and cardio time (let’s get those endorphins pumping!)
  8. Schedule in check-in time in your diary. If you’re still feeling down in a week, book an appointment with your therapist.

Why I spent an hour just floating

It’s a Sunday afternoon in January and I’m floating in a pitch black capsule of salty water.

As we sat down at a row of iPads to watch the video introduction at Auckland’s ‘Float Culture’, I won’t lie, I felt a little ridiculous. Yoga, hunting down the best artisan gelato in town, going for brunch in my active wear… ‘Is this who I’ve become?’ I wondered. Someone so removed from reality that I’m handing over a small fortune to sit in salty water for an hour? I live a ten minute walk from the sea!

i-sopod_flotation_tankIf you’re new to the idea of ‘floating’, you may be lost at this point. Let me back up and explain. The sales pitch is this: ‘Experience profound peace, mindfulness and complete physical relaxation in 60 minutes.’ It’s an audacious claim, isn’t it? Profound peace in 60 minutes. A friend of ours had tried it and, after I told him about my anxiety, had said ‘Girl, you’ve got to try this.’ So I asked my Mum to treat us to the floatation experience as a Christmas present, and here I am, in a futuristic-looking soundproof and lightproof pool with a lid, also known as a sensory deprivation tank.

We’re told that you need at least two to three sessions within a fortnight to get real benefit, so we’ve booked ourselves in for the next three weekends. I’ll report back on how I feel in a few weeks, but for now, how was my first hour in the tank?

For the first ten minutes they play music, which I could hear fuzzily through my earplugs. The first 15 minutes or so was full of thoughts. What I’ll be doing at work this week. What’s for dinner. I’m already bored, how am I possibly going to manage this for a whole hour? We’d been told that people often fall asleep in the tank, so before long I started wondering if anyone has ever drowned in one.

One thought that came up was that never before have I been weightless for an hour. In the tank you are held up by the salt water, so your muscles can relax completely. There’s no effort to sit, to swim or even to stay up. It felt both strange and liberating.

Then things changed. It felt like that in-between stage when you’re in bed, almost asleep, but still conscious. Later on I read that floating relaxes the brain into the ‘theta state’, also known as lucid dreaming or the meditative state.

A few bad memories surfaced, ones that come up every so often in day to day life, only here there were a few in one hour. Again, after the session I read an information sheet saying that this is a common experience.

I came to three or four times during the hour, each time just for a moment feeling awake enough to realise that I’d experienced something dream-like, before being pulled back to it.

pexels-photo-42450In these moments I imagined myself like an astronaut in space, slowly rolling forward and back and sideways without effort or resistance. I was no longer sure if I was just imagining it or if my body really had moved around the tank.

As the music started up again, signalling my final five minutes, I felt pulled out of a dream. Had I really fallen asleep? Or had I been in that in-between stage the whole time? I couldn’t tell.

One thing I did discover is that my body had been moving around. I reached up and to my left for the light switch. It wasn’t there. A momentary panic as I grabbed at the side of the pool. It had been there at the start of the session. Why couldn’t I find it?! It took a few moments to calm down, realise that my body must have rotated around, and reach for the lower right instead.

After my session I felt ‘spacey’ for an hour or two. My movements felt slower and my mind wasn’t on point. But I certainly feel rested and relaxed. Now I’m looking forward to finding out what my next two sessions will bring.