Going North- the problems of trying to lead a disciplined life.

It is high Summer in Orkney, and I am back again in Scotland once more.

When things are difficult in my life I’ve always headed North. I don’t mean the North of England. That’s pretty much where I come from now. I’ve lived and worked there long enough to be a real ‘Northerner’. When I go South to London I like to broaden my accent a bit for the hell of it. But for most of my life the real North has only existed somewhere in my imagination- a magical place that never seems entirely real until I arrive there- and when I do it isn’t because I’ve reached some point on the map. Its more than that, it’s the sense of peace that infuses first my limbs and then seeps through my body. My heart rate slows down. I can feel the blood pressure in my arteries falling as the valves that constantly drip adrenaline into my system and contribute to my persistent feeling of anxiety are closed down one by one. Not by medication, but by nature. I can stop moving. My skin begins to tingle and itch as the wounds beneath, the invisible ones I’ve carried around most of my life, begin to heal.

Recovery isn’t just about absence of symptoms. Researchers who deal in the currency of symptoms talk about how in depression we pass from ‘normalcy’ (whatever that is) to the experience of ‘disorder’ followed hopefully by ‘response’ to the treatment, ‘remission’ of symptoms (in which they lessen or disappear) and then ‘recovery’, but many of us have ‘residual’ symptoms which wax and wane over time. Similarly psychological therapies are not designed to achieve a ‘cure’ in medical terms. We have to find ways of living with from day to day with our symptoms, problems and unresolved psychological conflicts. Health professionals rarely ask ‘How do you get through the day?’ yet that is such an important question. Every morning when you finally get out of bed, you have to face several hours of being, doing, feeling and interacting before you can get back under the duvet. For me, how to survive this daily experience is central to the process of recovery.

But I’ve never been very disciplined and in many ways I am still a rebellious child. I dislike going to bed. Without my husband to get me up to bed I can sit lost in my thoughts, reading, surfing the net or watching the TV for hours. I can lie in bed half the morning like a teenager.

I have this intention every time I come up here that this time I am going to get myself into some kind of healthy daily regime. There is so much information about the kind of lifestyle I should lead if I am going to learn how to manage my recurrent downswings in mood and loss of energy, which are the first signs that I might be becoming more severely depressed again. I know there are some things I can do to stay well. The list is endless and I know there is some evidence for all of these things: taking regular exercise, getting sufficient sleep for my age, avoiding alcohol and other ‘substances’ and eating a “Mediterranean diet” (not always easy in Scotland- never mind if you are on a low income). I also know that, given my propensity for relapses I should stay on the medication I have taken, in one form or another for more than 20 years, as well as the other tablets I have for my physical health problems. Keeping my mind on track is essential here as I am alone most of the time. It’s a great place to practice the skill of allowing the boxes containing ‘difficult thoughts’ to pass across on the horizon of my mind without having to unpack them. I know there is a lot of rubbish in them that really needs to be thrown out. If I allow a worry to take over my mind here its quite difficult to elude it. My mood soon begins to spiral downwards. These are the skills, based on Mindfulness I began to learn in the Cognitive Therapy I underwent a few years ago, to help manage ruminative thoughts.

I must get to bed before midnight and up before 8. Eat healthy meals that I have cooked myself. Take some exercise every day. There is a voice inside me saying ‘if you do these things you will not only be well, but you will be good’. But why do I have to be good? I find it impossible to be good all the time. Can anyone truthfully manage that?

So I cannot tell you a satisfying tale of how I did all of these things that I know should help me and they did. I can only say that when I am able to do them, they do.

I am gradually learning to forgive myself for failing to always live up to the targets I set myself for each day. I made them, so I can break them. I don’t have to spend every hour doing something useful- where does that idea come from? I have a choice. It doesn’t really matter if I don’t get any cleaning done until just before I return to Yorkshire. The North is a place where I find it easier to be me because it reflects something about what is inside me- I can see myself reflected in the lochs, the moorland and hills- a little chilly at times and not to everybody’s taste, but perhaps worth discovering. We all have to find a place where we feel we can be ourselves. I need to learn how to carry the essence of it back South with me. The longer I am here, with each visit, the easier it is becoming.

My latest book’The Other Sides of Silence- A psychiatrist’s memoir of depression is out now and also just published in  USA

Two units under

According to my other half, I am one of those people who are permanently short of two units of alcohol. I’m undoubtedly better company when slightly I’m under the influence- I’m more sociable and relaxed. I can engage in conversation without feeling self-conscious when I’m with people I don’t know well, or haven’t seen for a while. Life just flows more easily. Two units a day, you say, that isn’t very much, its 14 a week, that’s just on the ‘safe limit’ for women. So why have I been trying to reduce the amount that I drink?

Since my early 20s I’ve been aware that I have an ambivalent relationship with alcohol. Most of the time we remain on reasonably good terms, but when my mood is low, or I’m under stress the booze likes to get one up on me. Like many people, when I was working full-time, I began to rely a little too much on my liquid friend. Days began to be measured on a new scale of severity- the number of bottles of Stella Artois I needed to feel relaxed after a weekday in the real world. One bottle (330ml 2 units) was a normal dosage, two bottles (4 units) for a tough day and 3 bottles (6 units- thankfully not very often) for a bloody awful day, plus a very strong Martini on Friday night to decompress and sometimes again on a Saturday, and wine (3-4 glasses) over the weekend. Mostly I drank just about up to the limit. Sometimes, and increasingly so as time went by, I exceeded it.

Okay, I can hear you saying, ‘what are you worried about, I know loads of people who drink a lot more than that!’ You may even do so yourself. I’m not asking you to consider it that is of course your choice. But it’s not only the amount you consume (although most diseases related to alcohol haven’t been informed there are ‘safe’ limits, the risk just gets greater the more you drink) it’s the nature of the relationship you have with booze. It’s addressing why you sometimes feel the need to rely on a friend whose apparent affability, social and legal acceptability masks the risk it poses for those of us who have the potential to depend on it, not just emotionally but physically too if we drink long and hard enough. Earlier this year, when I was experiencing, for a while, the most severe physical symptoms of anxiety I have ever known, when my chest was permanently tight and my hands shaking, there was only one substance easily accessible that took those symptoms away, and it usually took one of my husband’s martinis which is a fairly lethal combination of gin and vodka (plus Lillet Blanc and a twist of lemon if you are interested) to help me feel anything like calm. Mindfulness exercises didn’t touch it. Exercise was difficult as I felt exhausted most of the time and too anxious to venture out much. I’m quite sure diazepam would have worked too, but I’ve spent so many years trying to help people withdraw from it I wouldn’t wish to take it. I remember one of my patients who was depressed and couldn’t sleep said to me. ‘I didn’t want to take any pills, so I just decided to try alcohol, it’s a natural remedy isn’t it? Well no, it’s about as natural as anything that’s been processed by a brewery or distillery can be I suppose. And the Distiller’s Company also gave us thalidomide too. Not that I am any way comparing alcohol with that particular drug, but we know it also can cause terrible damage to the unborn. Alcohol is acceptable, available and costs comparatively less than it used to when you buy it in bulk at the supermarket or in Happy Hour.

When I worked as a consultant in a substance misuse service I saw so many young men whose problems with alcohol had begun in their teens, when they drank to self-medicate for social anxiety, unable to approach a member of the opposite sex when completely sober. The problem is alcohol doesn’t only relax you, it lowers your inhibitions in other ways. You are more likely to put yourself at risk, for example by having unsafe sex or walking home in the snow with insufficient clothing after a night out risking hypothermia, when you are drunk. Alcohol has a curious relationship with mood disorders that mental health services in the UK (but not in Australia) still don’t pay enough attention to. People with bipolar disorder can drink excessively when they are high and when they are low. Those of us with depression use alcohol to numb the pain of being alive, but the side effect is that we then feel much less inhibited about trying to harm ourselves or end our lives. When I was a student I discovered the advantages and disadvantages of drinking to oblivion. I was in danger of becoming the person we all remember who seemed to go that little bit further than everyone else, and we much later heard was not only emotionally but physically dependent on booze and on their way to destroying their career. Medicine is noted for its relationship with alcohol. There even used to be a bar in the doctors residence in Manchester when I was a junior doctor. I’ve glibly asked students at interview what they do to relax, because ‘medicine is an emotionally taxing profession’, and heard them list all their sporting and musical activities knowing full well how many of us fall back on the nightly Stella because it’s the easy, instant option.

So, of late, I’ve been considering this relationship much more honestly than I have in the past. I’m aware I have within me the potential to spend far too much time with this erstwhile friend and be lead seriously astray, but I’m still ambivalent. l so love the feeling of being intoxicated, at least until I wake in the early hours next morning. But I rarely allow things to go that far now. I’ve been staying alcohol free for longer and longer, particularly when I’m in Scotland. I don’t drink alone in the house, and I can no longer have anything at all when I’m out due to the new drink driving laws. I hope they are having an effect on the overall amount people consume, but we still need legislation on minimum pricing. I learned as a medical student that national consumption was governed by cost and availability. Why is more research required?

I still enjoy the occasional drink but I’m beginning to know, and like, my persona who is always two units under a little better and helping her find other ways to manage her anxiety. It’s a healthier option for me, in the longer term, giving alcohol the brush off.