Reasons for recovery

My depression got better for a while.  And then, a couple of weeks ago, I crashed and burnt.  Somehow it sneaked up on me and I didn’t realise what was happening until all the indicators were already present: irritability and impatience with my children; anxiety; exhaustion; confusion; a lack of enjoyment and a lack of motivation. Those are the symptoms but it’s their effects that I notice first.  I’m falling asleep putting the girls to bed.  I spend a lot of time telling my children not to do things and feeling annoyed.  No housework gets done because I’m in bed by 8.30 pm.  We are late for school nearly every day.  Life feels just too hard.

I’ve been trying to understand depression and where it comes from.  Mind have some information on their website and I did some Google searches, but it’s usually quite vague about the causes of depression: emotional trauma, anger, illness – what I want to know is how depression works, and how to stop it.  There’s a lot of advice about ways to help yourself – mindfulness, exercise, building relationships – but without knowing how they work, it’s hard to believe it will really change anything.

I tried my library.  I found ‘Smashing Depression’ by Terence Watts.  I am too tired to smash anything.  I borrowed ‘Beat Depression Fast’ by Alexandra Massey because it had some friendly-looking line drawings in it.  The trouble with books about overcoming depression is that there’s a confirmation bias at play.  They are written by people who have experienced depression (and should therefore know better than to suggest anything as energetic as ‘smashing’).  There are no books, for balance, called ‘I tried to overcome depression but I still feel like shit’.  What if some people can get better and go on to write books, and other people don’t get better and languish in bed feeling too tired to even watch TV? And what if I’m not in the first group?

Finally, rambling around the internet, I found a website by a company called ‘Uncommon Knowledge’.  They argue that people are depressed because anxiety and stress stop them sleeping properly.  Depressed people have lots of REM sleep, with dreams, and not enough good sleep.  Their brain gets too tired and they can’t function properly and they can’t recover.  They say this is based on some new scientific evidence and there’s a very nice monochrome flow chart.

I really can’t comment on the science behind their argument.  It could be bollocks for all I know.  I’m slightly dubious about anyone who presents new and little-known scientific discoveries as a lead-in to selling an online course.  But the validity of the science is irrelevant for my purposes*.  It gives me a story to hang my recovery on.  It links up all the good practice suggested to help recover from depression, all the things I know I should do like practising mindfulness and getting more sleep and avoiding having made-up arguments in my head with people about things which don’t really matter, and it gives me enough explanation as to why it might work to get me started and keep me going.

I’m not really sure whether I’ll ever get better forever, even if Alexandra Massey says I can.  I’ve experienced melancholy and periods of misery and feelings of overwhelming futility on and off all my life.  It’s possible that I’m more prone to depression than some people.  But I also have a lot of really good bits, where I’m amazing and funny and happy and the world is good.  If there are things I can do to coax my brain into spending more time dancing and less time in the pit of despair, I’ll give them a go.

*I’m not a monster.  I believe good science is important.  But just now I need a narrative more than I need accuracy.


Mothers’ Day flying solo

Every previous Mothers’ Day a family member has taken my two children, now aged four-and-a-half and six, to buy me a Mothers’ Day present and write a card and hide them somewhere (initially somewhere in my bedroom where they couldn’t find them and unwrap them in a fit of uncontrollable excitement, but now in a box under their beds).  This year, for various reasons, no-one was able to do this, so I was on my own.

My understanding, and limited experience, is that when you have a partner it’s their job to get your children to make you feel special on Mothers’ Day.  And through that your partner expresses their love and gratitude to you for being such an amazing mum.  Without an adult involved, my expectations were a little lower.

Under strict instructions from my mother, I spent yesterday making a Mothers’ Day cake with my two children.  Within the first three minutes I had already removed both children from the kitchen and told them they could only come back and bake if they were prepared to be nice to each other and me.  We also had fingers trapped in drawers, arguments about whose turn it was to stir and reminders not to put your entire fist in the bag of flour.  I’m not sure if my mum’s memory of baking with children is failing her or if she is just a bit hardier than me, but it’s like keeping plates spinning while walking on hot coals – not something you’d generally do to celebrate the loving bond between mother and daughters.

Eventually the cake was finished, in attractive shades of ham-pink and bluey-green, and left to cool.  During lunch  we had Seal bars, the Aldi version of Penguins.  It turns out that the difference between Mummy and Daddy is that Daddy buys Penguin bars, which have jokes on the back and are therefore significantly superior.  Ah, I pointed out, but Seal bars are cheaper, so we money to spend on other things.  Apparently ‘Daddy gets more money because he works a lot and sometimes he works all night’.

A lot of comparisons are made between Mummy’s house and Daddy’s house.  Daddy’s house has dogs and step-siblings.  Daddy has novelty on his side and a sense of certainty about the choices he makes.  Mummy and Daddy have different rules.  Mostly I’m fine with the comparisons because, well, we do things differently and I know my children love me and I’m happy with how I parent and the choices I make.  However, last week I tried extra hard to be a good parent, to feed them healthy food, to spend time with them, to start managing my money better.  When the parent-comparison boils down to which brand of chocolate biscuit you buy, it feels slightly more painful than I can bear.  Fortunately we were playing at schools, so I told them I was going to the staff room for some peace and quiet, got into bed and cried for a while.

Bedtime didn’t bring any improvements.  Small Girl is firmly committed to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and believes that going to bed contravenes all those things.  There was some defiance, a bit of kicking and some name-calling but eventually she went to sleep and so did I – not, however, with high hopes for a happy Mothers’ Day.

But, fortunately, it’s been ok.  Small Girl had made me a card at school, and had written ‘To Mum, I love you’ and her own name in it, all by herself.  I love seeing her writing developing, and that she was so pleased to give it to me.  Big Girl had made a card at Rainbows and one at school on which she had listed all the reasons she loves me (largely because apparently I take her out for breakfast, lunch and dinner and also to Ikea, but still, she loves me) and then popped down to the kitchen to quickly make me another one in case two cards weren’t enough.  And they tried to be kind to me and to make me feel loved, and they tried to be kind to each other.  We missed our train to get to our Quaker meeting, which I was a bit sad about as I did *really* want some silence and we wanted to share our cake with our friends.  But we had a nice walk home together and, hey, at least we’d tried to catch the train, which is far more than we manage some weeks (and I’m pretty certain that yesterday’s horribleness would have been lessened if we’d gone outside at some point in the day).  And I managed to clean the top of my table and the hideous patch underneath the table infested with crumbs and shoes and bits of paper and Happyland people and felt-tipped pens which brings a sense of shame and inadequacy every time I think about it.  So that was my Mothers’ Day present to myself.

The thing I like about celebrating on my own with my children is that whatever I get, I know it’s purely from them.  No-one is telling them to be nice to me and no-one is directing their behaviour.  Their delight at bringing me my cards is genuine and wholehearted.  It’s not an opportunity for a partner to express their love for me through our children.  And there’s something incredibly hopeful about the range of my feelings over this weekend: just because you cry about biscuits one day, it doesn’t mean the next can’t be better.  Being able to do this on my own makes me feel resourceful and self-sufficient, even if I do need sympathy from everyone I know on Facebook on the bad days.

I’m not saying this is better than the experience of mothers who have a partner around – families come in lots of different shapes and their experiences will reflect that.  And I’m not saying I don’t want my mum or sister to take the girls out shopping for my birthday present – my mum lets them choose whatever they want for my present and they come back with some unusual choices.  It’s just that what could be quite a bleak experience, and a reminder of what I sometimes feel I lack as a single parent, has turned out to be more special.


Undepressing myself

For the past 18 months or so, I’ve been experiencing, and getting treatment for, depression.  It started when I had a minor but unpleasant operation and just didn’t recover from the tiredness.  I went to a festival I love and had the most dismal weekend in a long time.  I wondered if there was something physically wrong – low iron, perhaps, or a thyroid problem.  And then I spent a day spent crying and feeling like a rubbish parent and a terrible person and realised it was probably something more than a shortage of spinach in my diet (I know it’s not true that spinach is particularly high in iron.  I just like the alliteration).  I’ve been through various doses of different antidepressants, a bit of counselling and some CBT.  My symptoms have ranged through tiredness, a lack of energy and motivation, social anxiety and a feeling that it would probably be easier if I was dead.  Over the past six months I’ve been at risk of redundancy, had a birthday and Christmas to organise, had a bereavement in my family and started a new and challenging job.  All that stress and the never-ending darkness of winter meant that my symptoms got worse, so I asked my GP to increase my medication.

I see my depression as a physical illness rather than a response to emotional trauma (although I read an article recently which argues that most mental illness is the outcome of misery). There aren’t particular problems in my life which cause my unhappiness.  When I had my operation, it put too much stress on my brain and something stopped working, resulting in my depression.  Like other long-term conditions, arthritis for example, certain factors make it worse: a lack of daylight, too much stress, not enough sleep.  My increased medication is reducing my symptoms at the moment. But what I want is to get better.

I don’t know enough about how my brain works, or what has gone wrong.  If there’s a lack of seratonin staying in my brain, do the antidepressants just artificially increase that, or are they fixing whatever is stopping the seratonin staying in my brain?  Will taking antidepressants for long enough get my brain back on track?  Is my brain like a big muscle, just needing me to do enough ‘happiness physio’ to get it strong again?  Is it made up of ‘neurological pathways’ which get stronger and better connected the more I use them?  Will practising the ‘Five ways to wellbeing‘ get me there?  Is depression an illness you recover from, or a state some people are more prone to throughout life?

When I have a problem, I like to make a plan.  So here goes: First of all I’m going to do some reading, to try to understand how depression works, and what ‘recovering from depression’ might look like.  And then I’m going to do some things to try to get better, quickly, while we’re still heading into British Summer Time and there’s daylight and all those things I love.  I’ll let you know how I get on.