Thursday, 24 May 2012

an essay in ubuntu & depression, to my friend on her birthday

tate, london, 2010
I have a bunch of papers -some proper lists, others just key words on scraps of paper -about things that have caught my eye or captured my attention that I want to explore and then share with you. There's one post in particular that has been brewing for a while, and since the inspiration behind it is celebrating a birthday today, perhaps it's time to just knock it out, without getting caught up in worrying about finding the right words. 

That's why this has taken so long to write - it turns out that there is a huge gap between my vocab - and I work with words all day! - and the feelings, or lack thereof, of this particular story...

So, it starts with a friend who suggested, somewhat flippantly I'm sure, on a Facebook post that I ought to write a book, or at least a blog. I've blogged for ages, but as those who have been here for a while will know, it is often part journal and I resisted advertising it too much. This really is a blog that people have merely stumbled upon and I've built up individual connections with many of you, wherever in the world you may be, and regardless of whether I know you in my offline world or not. 
So I told Max that indeed, there was a blog, and I kind of assumed she knew about it since her hometown is well represented in my analytics reports. Who else could that be in Brisbane?!

That Facebook chat led to Maxie and I sharing so much more once she had visited here - and she was instantly braver than me, starting her own blog, Postcard Epiphanies, detailing her adventures in post-natal depression. I was blown away. This is a woman who is so fearless, so sorted - with a good career, lovely little family, an international outlook and who managed continent-hopping with small child in tow. I might only have seen her Facebook posts but her life seemed so *together* and if anything, I would have felt in awe of all she was managing. We chatted more and more, Facebook connecting us in a way we hadn't had time for in London. We shared experiences, stories, hints and tips... 

because I've been there too.

I don't have children, nothing 'post-partum' here; no major stressful incident happened to cause me to be 'depressed'; and having been close to a severely mentally distressed person, it took me a long time to ask for help. That's because I thought that what I was experiencing was not severe enough to warrant me being another demand on our ailing health care system, which I know now is a symptom in itself - not feeling worthy of allowing myself help. I thought then, and I still do, 'There but for the grace of God go I' since I've seen how very scary it can be when one's mind causes self-loathing. In fact, I'm actually an optimist, and an extrovert - and God knows, if I was to get depressed it should have happened years ago, during way more stressful times than these. 

And that made me feel worse for feeling bad enough already. I had nothing to be sorry about, really. Yet I carried the weight of the world - moving between feeling nothing, and taking on the pain and fears of others, either real or imagined. 

So, I wasn't a threat to myself. I just gave up on myself. It felt as though I had made a series of really bad decisions over the course of my whole life, that had led to this lonely and bleak place - and it was too late. My feelings were a mixture of sadness, disillusionment and hopelessness, a sense of drowning in my own body, surrounded by a thick, grey, choking fog, that made moving seem strenuous - and laying still seem suffocating. It seemed that there was no way out other than to wait for old age and the inevitable (yet also fearing that since I am still working out my faith in what comes next). 

I was so lucky to have the ear of a gynae when I charted my moods over my cycle, and we figured out that pre-menstrually was when I felt the worst, and that was when my behaviour was totally out of whack - sobbing uncontrollably at a TV documentary about the Queen's disabled cousins (so sad, waving their flags at the TV while locked up in an institution); crying when the local Indian restaurant was empty on a Tuesday night - feeling unduly responsible that the kind waiters, so impeccably turned out, had no one to feed - and they rushed around me trying to make me feel better with free naan bread while I wept, unable to explain that my tears were for their empty seats which foretold bankruptcy, children lost to social services, and homes repossessed - and free naan would only make things worse.
I know.

Removing my Mirena* made a world of difference. The English winter also gave way to brighter days, which helped too, as did medicine and some CBT**. Mainly though, writing got me through. Some of it here. And the feedback from my posts, and being connected to other people, even when I was hard work. 

I know I was hard work, but in the way that you know you've seen a movie, years ago, and the details are fuzzy. I don't remember those deep, dark months properly. I lost time, and I don't know where it went. I've come out the other side heavier (don't believe depression always causes a loss in appetite - instead, I ate my feelings, continuously. It gave me a purpose. A short term one, at least. I eat, therefore I am.)
When I was there, in that hole, I couldn't remember being happy, ever, in my whole life. I looked at photos of happy times, and either dismissed them - 'I wasn't really happy, because I can't remember how I felt' - or excused them - 'well, that was your life then, and this is your life now. What did you do to ruin it?'

The same is true now - I googled images to illustrate this post, and none of the results were right - so as one feels better, it's hard to remember just how it felt, to feel nothing, to live a life in grey. These photos, on very different days, from the same position on my balcony are probably the best examples I can find to try to explain how life seemed - sometimes bright, and at other times like there was nothing out there: 
In his book, the Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon talks of how, if the soul is iron, minor depression can be equated to rust, whereas major depression is a breakdown of the whole structure - a collapse. I am so thankful I never got further than rusty, but I also know that living how I was, for that period of time, is no way to live at all.

Solomon describes depression as both a birth and a death. He tells how he returned one day to a wood where he had played as a child. There, a vast old oak tree had been throttled by an aggressive vine, making it hard to tell where vine stopped and tree began. So it is with depression. It holds you so tight, needing you to live in order for it to thrive, choking you at every breath. 
As it becomes stronger it holds your shape, and anyone looking from below would imagine the leaves at the top of the oak as belonging to the tree - yet really they are those of the vine. It is hard to see whether the oak has withered and died, or still exists, just as one's moods and thoughts are not one's own in the tight grip of depression. It is hard to know where personality ends and pathology begins. Solomon's description is the clearest I have ever come to be able to describe how I felt, as this illness beat me into submission - allowing me to appear myself, demanding that I obeyed all constraints of society, working, earning, participating, yet knowing that this was not me, feeling lost, isolated, buried alive. 
There was nothing I could do to ask for release, or to be saved, since I had to save myself. And that is impossible when one is one's own worst enemy.
Solomon says depression is the flaw in love. 'To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair'. So it makes sense that during one of our exchanges I told Max that sometimes being sadder had made me happier, and it's true.

I had carefully chosen where to live - in the light, near water, in a community. I'm sure that was key to feeling better, quickly. I have thoughtfully chosen work that is meaningful to me - aligned to my strengths, and varied and interesting. I have become much more mindful, and my life is full of daily joys - scented candles, heirloom cutlery (no stainless steel round here!), painted toenails. I've also thought long and hard about the bigger things that give me joy, or things I want to do - swimming in phosphorescence, travelling, creative pursuits  (still getting through that list). I know what makes me feel better if I begin to slide into apathy - and I just have to pick one or two of those things on my list on a bad day and I feel instantly lighter. A mindful list like that, my friends, is something I'd recommend as a worthwhile exercise - regardless of your mental health.

Allie, the masterful creator of Hyperbole and Half, has a fantastic post on depression - what an oxymoron - but she describes exactly how these crazy-assed brains of ours can be our worst enemies - the vicious cycle of sadness, self-loathing, anger and apathy. Those of you who are short sighted enough to think that this is indulgent have no idea how close unhappiness can be, and for that, I fear for you, since one in four of us will suffer from a period of ill mental health in our lifetimes. 
A happy life is a blessing & a gift, one that can turn upside down within the blink of some misfiring neurotransmitters or an unexpected life event. Every now and again, I come across another blogger sharing her story, each different, but each familiar. Each time I have needed a soft place to land, one has magically appeared, a blog post appears written as if *to* me, a friend phones, an appropriate magazine article is just over the page. Max tells a wonderful story about a surprise soul-mate in the grocery queue that made me laugh. It's what I continually try to practise too. 

For in giving of myself, I am happy. I know, it sounds hippy-ish, but it's well documented - how volunteering makes people feel better, less isolated, and how giving of time and attention boosts endorphins. There are too many links to choose just one - google it if you don't believe me. Volunteering is a big concept when feeling totally wiped out - but kind words, smiles at strangers, small talk at the shop, always paying it forward, is manageable, and pays dividends. 

And so, Maxie, today, on your birthday, consider this an essay to you to thank you for being so brave, and sharing your armour with me and with those who need it - new mums or not.

How blessed we are to have seen the flaw in love and know that life is all the better for it, when we learn empathy and are able to support & connect with one another. It is the essence of ubuntu***, 'I am because you are', made visible in our daily lives, which in turn builds on our very essence of humanity...


Notes on this post: 
Mirena* - this IUD releases hormones locally into the uterus, and 'should not' affect one's brain chemistry, or cause depression. That said, there are a number of reported stories linking the Mirena to feelings of depression. If you think that you may be depressed, from your Mirena, or otherwise, speak to your doctor. If your doctor is dismissive, ask for a second or third opinion. Ask someone - a friend or family member, to go with you, to fight your corner. If there is another contraceptive option available to you, perhaps it is worth trying. Millions of women are happy with their Mirena. Others are not. I was one of them. This blog isn't intended as medical advice - instead, this is my story.

CBT** - Feeling Good, David A Burns is my 'go-to' cbt book - his explanations and exercises are brill.

ubuntu*** - Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human…You share what you have. It is to say ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life. We say ‘a person is a person through other persons.’ It is not ‘I think, therefore I am.’ It says rather ‘I am human because I belong. I participate. I share.’ A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.’ Desmond Tutu.


MJ Kelly said...

Magical powerful brave brave words, my beautiful friend. I so so so agree with you about how you end up finding yourself through this awful stuff. You are such a shining light when it comes to just DOING it. Just write that blog, just get better, just keep your wheels moving. No wallowing, just deal with it and move forwards! That is actually such a gift that SO many people lack. The ability to maak 'n plan. Lots of love xxx

Gayle Willington said...

Carly, that is a very honest post, well done on being able to publicize your thoughts so eloquently. I have been through the PND after Alex and 2 years on am still on the happy pills. I must admit I had some very dark days feeling that I just wasn't needed by anyone. My worst moments were also always premenstrual - rubbish hormones we have! I have been very lucky to be a stay-at-home mom but at the same time I have had to get over the fact that this a full time job that although it doesn't pay me on amonthly basis is just as important as Rhys' whose brings in the money.

Anyway enough rambling, just to let you know you are an inspiration and I look forward to many more blogs from you.
Big hugs xxx
PS Love your Friday flowers - have even taken some photos to send you sometime... :0)

Carly {covet.collect.connect} said...

hi Gayle - thanks so much for your comment, so kind, and deffo's send me some flowers! I get so excited when I get photos - it feels like the Friday flowers franchise has developed a life of its own. And big thank you for sharing - it continues to blow my mind that our brains and bodies can be so mean to us. Glad that you sound as though you are over the worst - if you ever fancy packing up the kids and heading down south for the day, keep in touch, I work from home and am always around. xx

Stephanie Bentz said...

Just read this now ... I wouldn't know where to start ... maybe with some sauv blanc ... I'll buy the wine. Lee can baby sit !

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