Resilience

When I was first diagnosed with depression and an anxiety disorder, the following excerpt was brought to my attention. It’s taken from ‘Depressive Illness: The Curse of the Strong’ a book by Dr Tim Cantopher:

“What happens if you put a whole lot of stresses on to someone who is weak, cynical or lazy? The answer is that they will immediately give up, so they will never get stressed enough to become ill. The strong person on the other hand reacts to stress by redoubling their efforts, pushing themselves way beyond the limits for which their body is designed. When they start getting the symptoms of depression they still keep going, with the inevitable result that eventually their limbic system gives way. If you put 18 amps through a 13 amp fuse there is only one possible result.”

Dr Cantopher’s observations are backed up by scientific theory. “When a part of our brain called the limbic system malfunctions it manifests as depression. Our limbic system is a complex system of nerve fibres configured like a computers circuit board, controlling numerous systems around our body including our moods. It copes with our everyday life stresses very well, but it does have a limit. When pushed beyond breaking point (usually, but not exclusively, by a traumatic event) it will effectively blow a fuse. This ‘fuse’ is our transmitter chemicals, seratonin and noradrenaline, and their levels drop rapidly when the circuit blows. Without the correct levels of these two chemicals the electrical impulses that our brains nerve fibres need also drop, which in turn causes our ‘circuit board’ to abruptly stop working i.e. depression.”

In those early days, I took great comfort from those words. Because they resonated with me. I’d always been considered mentally ‘strong.’ Exams and performing under pressure didn’t bother me, I was great in a crisis, I never got too high or too low in my emotions, and I was superb at helping other people through their own troubles. So it all made sense.

I was also aware that emotions and reactions to mental inputs didn’t just materialise in thin air. They were caused by chemical reactions in the brain. So once again, it made sense. I had overworked the physical functions that moderate emotions and now I was paying the price.

Time passed, and I got worse. My anxiety rendered me unable to speak, my hands shook uncontrollably, and physical ticks presented themselves. Depression led me to self harm and suicidal thoughts. I had the worst time of my life. The worst time I’ll probably ever have. I tried different medications, extensive therapy. Eventually, I came out of it, and today I find myself in a relatively good place.

A little while back, I made the conscious decision to approach my life as if anxiety and depression no longer affected me. They were conditions that I used to have, and may occasionally relapse into, but they were no longer my present. They no longer defined me. And then a couple of weeks ago my medication was changed (in the hopes of leaving me feeling like less of a zombie in the mornings) and I went to shit.

Once again, I was wreck. Just when I’d seemed to be getting myself together, I fell apart. The stammer came back, the ticks and twitches reappeared and I locked myself away, afraid of the world. I was advised to stop the new medication and go back onto my old medication. I worried that I’d set myself way back. It had taken me the best part of 18 months to get to where I was. How long was it going to take to get back there this time? Miraculously, it took just over a week.

Somehow, I managed to retain the lessons I’d learnt and the thought processes I’d implemented. I’m back to feeling pretty straight again. When I went to therapy today, my therapist was surprised at how well I’d done to bounce back in this fashion. She mentioned my “resilience.” She said that I’d been through an incredibly tough time, faced another battle, and yet here I stood, having overcome it all.

I disagreed. I didn’t feel resilient. I saw it like this. I wasn’t resilient, because I was weak for succumbing to all of this in the first place. It was self imposed. The suffering I’d caused myself and the people around me, was all my fault. It’s not like somebody had told me to be anxious or depressed. I’d come up with that myself. I was the cause. I was to blame. Nobody told me at 16 to become borderline emotionless and bottle everything up, I’d done that, even if it was subconscious, it was me. Nobody told me to develop IBS either. I caused it.

Quite rightly, my therapist told me that I was wrong. A common theme in our sessions has been her belief that I’m too hard on myself. I set these rules and expectations upon how I should act and feel, and I pass harsh judgement on myself if I think I’m not up to scratch.

So I think it’s time that I accept what she’s saying and acknowledge the truth. She is right. I am resilient. And I shouldn’t be ashamed to feel that way. I’ve faced battles that have killed other people, that have nearly killed me, but I’m still standing. It wasn’t weakness that got me through it, it was strength. And despite it all, I’m here and i’m looking toward the future.  A couple of close friends of mine have got Crohn’s Disease. I wouldn’t tell them they’ve done it to themselves. It’s something that has appeared within their body, over which they had no control. My illness was no different.

My depression and anxiety were the result of environmental factors, of chemical reactions. I didn’t choose depression. I didn’t choose anxiety. When I was 16 and my parents split up, I wasn’t equipped to deal with the emotions I was experiencing. I thought that being strong and not falling apart was the right thing to do. When I was new to the police and being bullied for the first time in my life, I didn’t choose to become anxious. I tried to keep my head down and persevere. By ploughing on forwards and not letting myself fall, I wasn’t being weak; just ignorant about what I was doing to myself.

Now when I look back, I won’t see myself as being weak for having had depression and anxiety. I’ll see myself as being strong and resilient for overcoming them.

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Resilience

Broken

Sometimes I wonder if I am fundamentally broken. Not damaged or spoilt; broken. Beyond repair.

Because the nightmare never ends. The anxiety, the getting worked up. The feeling down in the dumps and permanently on the edge of tears. 

I’ve been trying to fix myself for almost two years. Doctors, psychiatrists, therapists, counsellors, drugs, CBT, mindfulness. Nothing has worked. So I must be broken right?

When you can’t fix something, you say it’s broken. And then you throw it away.

But because I’m a person, I’m not allowed to be thrown away. I have to continue to be used, despite the fact that I’m not fit for purpose – I don’t function, I don’t operate correctly, what is the point? If I was a machine I’d be thrown on the scrap heap. But that isn’t allowed to happen.

So mentally, I put myself back in the box. Not working correctly. Of no use. Stuffed in a cupboard somewhere, no idea why I’m being kept. Broken.

Broken

Self loathing

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Some days I am consumed with self loathing. There are countless reasons that I feel this way. For example, I hate myself for putting my wife through this. She doesn’t just have to get herself through the day, she has to get me through it as well. I have to be coaxed into going anywhere. It’s never a simple “yes I’d like to go”. It’s a whirlwind of anxiety. Where am I going? How am I getting there? Who is going to be there? What if I’m in a bad way in front of them? Can I get home if I want to just leave? Plans and arrangements are constantly changed, tailored to my needs. Everybody else has to work around me. By trying not to draw attention to myself and my problems, I only end up doing the opposite. It’s hard work being married to me.

Yet I still can’t find the words to express how grateful I am. For sticking with me through this, for picking me up, for moving to a completely different country. Just to make me happy. For not giving up on me when any other sane person would have. To say more than just “I love you” and that I think I’d probably be dead without you. But I can’t find the words.

I hate myself for continuing to put me through this too. Nearly two years on and I still have days where I just want to give up. Why can’t this be like any other illness? Why can’t it be cured or just kill me? It lingers. I work myself into a frenzy and my brain feels like it’s going to explode. I see stars. Seriously, my head spins so much I see stars and lose my balance. I’m tired. Why do I have to keep experiencing this? Why won’t it stop? Why won’t I stop doing it to myself? And then I hate myself for feeling sorry for myself.

I’ve quit my job, moved to another country and tried to carve a out new career. But the slightest setback sees me crumbling. Giving up. I can’t do it. I’m not capable. This isn’t going to work. I lose focus. I don’t achieve anything, my brain gets stuck on repeat. I think over and over about something that doesn’t even matter. I’m useless. So I hate myself for being useless.

There’s no happy ending to this. I just hope that putting the words on a page and out of my head, will help clear it. I fear that it won’t. I think today is a day where I’m irredeemable. Because I hate myself for being self indulgent enough to write about hating myself.

Self loathing

Self Harm Pt.2

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The first time I hurt myself my intention was clear – it was a test run for how easy it would be to slit my wrists. The second time I hurt myself was different. I wasn’t really sure why I was doing it. No ready explanation presented itself. I was sure it wasn’t a coping mechanism, because I certainly didn’t feel any better for doing it. It neither eased my pain or provided relief.

I was told unequivocally by loved one’s, “You are not to do it again”. Sharp objects were removed from the house and I was closely monitored at all times. It didn’t help though, the seal had been broken and I continued unabated.

I took to hurting myself in the shower, one of the few places where I couldn’t be watched if my wife wasn’t around. I used anything that could be grasped and scratched repeatedly on my skin until it cut and bled. I did it when I was only slightly anxious, I did it when I was completely overwhelmed. It became my default mechanism in times of stress.

For a while, nothing stopped me. Not the tears, the upset, the pain, the embarrassment of being seen in public covered in cuts and scabs. And why would it? I didn’t know why I was doing it, so why would I know what it was going to take to stop it?

Of all the things that have happened to me during my illness, self harm is still the most surprising. I never thought it was something I would resort to, naively dismissing it as the domain of teenage girls desperate for attention. But there I was doing it. When I look back now, I’m horrified at myself. Admittedly it was at a time where I was really struggling with my medication – I was all over the place, but still, how on earth did I get so low – so irrational – that I was willing to do it?

Self-harm is when somebody intentionally damages or injures their body. It’s usually a way of coping with or expressing overwhelming emotional distress – NHS website

Eventually, realisation dawned. I was expressing overwhelming emotional distress’Self harm was my way of showing people that I really wasn’t well. I wasn’t coping. Unable to express the feelings verbally, I was instead making a visual display. A display that quite clearly said, I am not alright.

Most people battling illness have physical signs. Quite often you just need to look at someone to know that they are not well, be it a runny nose, clammy skin, stitches or a plaster cast – there’s generally something you can see. I had nothing. To look at me would not reveal the distress I was in, the depths I was plumbing. That is, until I had my scars. My scars were visible, they were my battle wounds. It was pretty hard to ignore them.

Once I had finally worked out why I was hurting myself, the key to stopping it became fairly obvious. If self harm was expression, I needed a better way of expressing myself. I needed to talk. So I did just that. If I felt anxious, I told somebody. If I was upset, I let people know. I started writing about my experiences and chose to raise money for a mental health charity (more on that below). Finally, it was out there. People knew I was ill, so I didn’t have to show them anymore.

I am raising money for Mind, the mental health charity, please sponsor me here: http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/team/MindTeam6

Self Harm Pt.2

Self Harm Pt.1

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Where to start? I honestly do not know. I have written and rewritten this opening paragraph numerous times. I have stepped away from the computer, had a good think, came back, typed, deleted, stepped away again. There is no subtle introduction that springs to mind, no gentle easing in to the subject matter, because the subject matter is visible, in your face, as obvious as the scars on the people that it affects.

Prior to my own experiences, “self harm”  was a behaviour to which I gave little thought. I had dealt with people who self harmed through my job and generally speaking, I just assumed that they must be desperately seeking attention. That is where my line of thought began and ended. So how did I end up becoming one of those “attention-seekers”?

It is only now, with my health in a better place, that I am able to stop and think about it. And I realise it started sooner than I had previously thought. The first time was in Gozo. I was bubbling up to my first full blown explosion and had disappeared off for a walk. I walked some considerable way and found myself in the picturesque bay of Marsalforn. I sat on a bench, staring out to sea, absent-mindedly scratching away at my hand with the broken cap from a tube of insect repellant. After a short time, absent-mindedly graduated to intentionally and I was actively scarring myself. It was a brief experience that I was able to put a stop to. The mark to my hand was minimal, as was the amount of thought I gave to the whole experience. The next time however, could not be ignored.

For just about the only time in the past 12 months, I was drunk. Unlike many people who suffer with depression, I had not turned to alcohol. Since my mid-twenties, getting drunk has been a rare occurrence reserved for stag dos and weddings. On this occasion, I had been out with my sister-in-law and her friends, who were visiting. For the first time in the longest time, I was enjoying myself. I was having a great night, until the short cab ride home when it became abundantly clear that I in actual fact, I wasn’t feeling great at all. As this was the first and only time I had drunk alcohol whilst on medication, I had not considered the effects of mixing the two.

Within 5 minutes of getting home I was providing an offering to the porcelain gods. Unbeknownst to my house guests, I absolutely chucked my guts up. I was in the bathroom so long that everybody else went to bed. Previously I have talked about loneliness and this was the first occasion where I truly felt it. Frankie (my wife) wasn’t home, she was away on a hen do, my sister in law was asleep and I was sat on my own in a bathroom. Despair and a great tiredness washed over me. Suddenly, I had reached my limit with life. So I reached for a razor.

My consideration was suicide and how to go about it. I elected to trial the razor for this purpose. Unsure as how to approach it, I figured I’d start on my forearm just to see how easy it would be to make a deep cut. It turns out it was very easy. And it didn’t hurt. Then very suddenly it hurt like hell. Maybe it was the sight of my own blood, maybe it was sobering up, but something certainly snapped me out of it. I cleaned up my wounds and the bathroom, and went to bed.

To be continued…

I am raising money for Mind, the mental health charity, please sponsor me here: http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/team/MindTeam6

Self Harm Pt.1

Disconnected

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For quite some time now, I have been telling people that I feel lonely. “Go and meet up with friends” is the typical response, or, “go and do your writing in a coffee shop, so you’re not sat at home on your own”. “But I’ll still feel alone” I will say, and they will draw a blank. I will try to explain how it is to be sat in a room full of people – that you know, or share a common bond with – yet still feel completely alone. Double blank.

The definition of lonely is “sad because one has no friends or company”. That is not what I have been trying and failing to describe. I can understand that. If I am sat at home on my own, it goes to follow that I will feel alone. So that doesn’t make sense if I am in the company of friends. The logical conclusion, therefore, is that I am wrong and it is my fault that people are drawing a blank.

My battle with depression and the resultant journey of self exploration, has taught me that I have no great understanding of my own emotions. Despite being able to spot them in others, I cannot find them within myself. I was given an emotion wheel recently. It’s a diagram that lays out the various different emotions that a person might feel. As my eye made it’s way around the wheel, I was faced with the realisation that at best, I have a limited range of emotions. Most of what I was reading, seemed to me to be the same thing.

Currently I find myself in Malta, a place that has become almost a second home. Frankie (my wife) is half Maltese, so I have found myself on this wonderful piece of rock on at least 12 occasions (probably more in all likelihood). I have always felt at home here, in touch with the Mediterranean way of life that permeates this small island. We were married here and we would love to move here, so, it seemed the logical destination for a bit of relaxation and an attempt at hitting the reset button.

As Frankie is taking a much needed break with a friend in Italy, I thought it would be wise for me to go somewhere that I know, that I love, where I know the people and the places. Thus, Malta. Despite only being here for one and a half days, I have already seen friends and family. But I still can’t shake this feeling.

It finally hit me this evening. The right word. As I sat on a bench staring out to sea, ice cream in hand, I realised that people were walking by. I hadn’t noticed them. Couples, families, groups of friends, Maltese, tourists. They all passed by without an acknowledgement of their existence from myself. I felt that I was in a glass box, looking outwards at the world. And then that word wormed it’s way into the front of my brain. Disconnected.

Disconnected, “(of a person) lacking contact with reality”. Not only was I disconnected from them, I was fully detached from the connections they clearly had with each other. It seemed so alien, watching them pass by, part of a bigger world, whilst self contained in their own little bubbles of connection. I couldn’t empathise with that at all.

My only connection nowadays comes via my laptop. My words on a computer generated page. Could it be that I find a connection with you, the reader, via the thoughts that I tap out on my keyboard? Or more likely, is it the words themselves to which I feel connected? I fear that it must be the latter. Because, as I sit here on the balcony writing, I allow myself the occasional glance downwards, to those people passing below, and… nothing.

I look at the world around me and see nothing but intolerance and ignorance. Where has the respect gone? For human life, for the people that make us better when we are sick, or protect us from those that would do us harm? I see a culture of self-gratification and buck passing. It is always somebody else’s fault. Patience replaced by instant messaging and real time twitter coverage. People are more likely to whip out a mobile phone and film, than stop and help. Athletes and celebrities are worshipped as heroes, not the copper who catches the criminal who burgled your house, nor the single mother working multiple jobs to provide for her children. So is it any wonder I feel disconnected, when you lump all of that on top of my fragile mental state?

I am the lone wolf. Set adrift from his pack, pacing the frozen wastelands, skirting the unfamiliar packs that he comes across, wary that instead of taking him in, they will only chase him away. So I guess I must do as the wolf and keep howling to the moon – in this case a computer screen – in the hope that someone will hear me and that one day, I just might make it back.

If you haven’t already, please sponsor me at: http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/team/MindTeam6

Disconnected

In sickness and in health

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This blog post has been written by wife, Frankie Edwards and edited (ever so slightly for grammar!) by myself:

Dealing with somebody who has anxiety and depression, can be just as tough on you, as it is for the person who has the illness. I know this first hand. The past year has been a series of highs and lows that have been tough to bare. The highs arrive when we’re thinking things have come to an end, only to have the low the next day, when we realise we aren’t quite there yet.

I have been with Steven for nine and a half years and for over eight of those years, he was my version of perfect. I have loved him since the day I met him and to me there is nobody better. Nobody better for me, nobody I would rather be the father to my children… No man compares. Steven was always super calm, super rational and some might say relatively emotionless, but now he’s very different. Since getting poorly he is a very different man, but through his battle of a lifetime, he is doing his best to come out the other side a better, more rounded and more emotional person. But it’s been tough, really tough.

Some days I just want to run. But then I see a glimpse of my hero and I know that I can’t.
Over the past year I have learnt some things about myself and I feel that I have changed a lot because of them. I have learnt; to get less stressed… to be patient… to be more understanding… to be less reliant on others… who my friends really are… who actually cares… who doesn’t… how to handle crisis situations (better than I ever imagined I could)… to let Steven be free, because sometimes he just has to do things for him.

I love Steven. In sickness and in health. And I have to believe (and I take encouragement from his progress) that I will get him back, and more than that, I will get an even better version of him, new and improved. I will also be a better version of me.

I know that everybody’s situation is different, but I have found the following things really useful for me and Steven. Maybe they could be useful for others?

1) When someone with anxiety is struggling and starts stammering or getting worked up, prompt them to pause and to breathe in through their nose. This helps them reset.
2) Encourage exercise, on the days that Steven has worked out, he is a much more positive person.
3) Sometimes people with this illness become irrational, very irrational, so be prepared for that. Remember that not everything they say is truly what they think, it’s just how they feel at that moment when their chemicals are all out of sync. Be understanding, say you get it, try to rationalise it without upsetting. Always remain calm. If you stay calm, it’s easier for them to become calm. Trying to deal with two worked up people is harder than one, so at the moment forget about yourself and think only of them.
4) Never, ever, ever say “calm down” “pull yourself together” “it’s all in your head”. Never get aggressive, stuff like “go f*ck yourself” will do the most damage. They can’t help what’s happening. Remembering that it is an illness like any other, allows you to be more sympathetic.
5) Find something that they love to do and encourage it. Steven loves to write, it’s his outlet, his therapy, and he’s BRILLIANT! This is what he wants to do as a career, so it has given him a goal. For Steven, writing – more than anything else – has helped him express how he is feeling.

Remember, you are not alone. There are so many people who want to help you, as well as the people who want to help the person whose poorly. Accept this help, you need it. Don’t expect it from the person suffering, they have enough on their plate. Make the most of good friends and good family. They love you and they will do anything for you. When it comes to those people who don’t help out, or make you feel worse, restrict your time with them. Avoid the negativity.

Finally, do something for you; work out, get your nails done, go for walks, have tea and cake, go on a girls holiday (I’m off to Italy with my best friend and I cannot wait!)… Whatever makes you happy. Because you need to be okay, if you want to be able to help.

Life brings ups and downs, but everything will work out for the best.

Love to all.

Frankie

xxxxx

*We are raising money for Mind, you can sponsor us here: http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/team/MindTeam6*

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In sickness and in health