The keeping of stories

When I was a doctor I was a keeper of stories- and I don’t mean just the person who entered those stories into casenotes. As Danielle Ofri says in her memoir of life at Bellevue Hospital in New York, Singular IntimaciesI often felt the weight of balancing so many patients’ stories within me. I remembered what people told me, the expressions on their faces, their pain and anguish, the events of their lives, and the impact that what had happened to them not only had on the person telling their story to me- but how it affected me- the listener.

From the general practitioners, psychologists and psychiatrists who have seen me through episodes of depression to the nephrologist I visit every year for my kidney disease there are a small number of people who know my story of ill health. I used to be able to count the ones who have been important on one hand but as I grow older it now takes two. There aren’t very many because most saw me for many years, through periods when I was very unwell, and much less frequently, in times of good health too. We knew each other. It was such a relief that I didn’t have to repeat my story each time we met. When my mood deteriorated, they remembered how I could be, what I had achieved in my life, and helped me to distinguish the person that I might really become from the one beaten down by the overwhelming impact of depression and anxiety. Over time, I was able to develop sufficient trust in each one to allow them to help me. I believed that they cared what happened to me, and the hope that they held for me each time I became unwell acted as a lantern to light the way on the road to recovery. They have been the keepers of my story.

Seeing the same health professional over time, something we call relational continuity of care, really matters. It is particularly important in primary care, where person-focused rather than disease focused care is far preferable for people with multimorbidity- older people like me with sometimes several different conditions. A recent systematic review led by Professor Sir Denis Pereira Gray, a veteran advocate of continuity of care who consulted in the same house as both his father and grandfather, has shown that it saves lives. Being able to see the same doctor really is a matter of life and death. Yet our policymakers have prioritised fast access over continuity so that it can now be increasingly difficult to see the same GP.

Continuity is also crucial in mental health care. When, at the recent Royal College of Psychiatrists International Congress, a mother told an audience the story of how her teenaged son had seen nine difference consultant psychiatrists in one year, many of us were shocked. How could such fragmentation of care have been allowed to come about in our mental health care system? How could the impact be anything less than highly detrimental? Yet it is clear from the reaction of so many people with whom I’ve discussed this in the last month that this story is so far from unusual. Nevertheless there is evidence that continuity of care is associated with better quality of life for people with severe mental illness. Another more recent study that compared mental health care systems based on continuity or specialisation pointed towards reduced length and number of hospitalisations, and faster or more flexible transitions between services in continuity systems. And both patients and staff (unsurprisingly) preferred continuity models.

This is not however to say that the old ‘sectorised’ model of the past, with one consultant overseeing a community, was without problems. Sectors were often too large, with one consultant perpetually overstretched, and there was limited opportunity for choice when the relationship between doctor and patient broke down, or a sector consultant had particularly strong views about certain diagnoses, or treatments. When I arrived to take up my first consultant post in general adult psychiatry, I found to my horror a ‘blacklist’ of patients my predecessor had refused to see or admit to his unit- most of whom I eventually managed to engage and help. I saw many for second opinions from within and even outside our organisation. The NHS was more flexible then and extensive paperwork was not required. Later, working side by side with a colleague across one sector, we were able to provide our population with more choice, and between us a range of different expertise and interests.

Now service users and patients are shuttled from one functional team to another – from community to crisis team, to in-patients, to recovery, back to their GP and then back again around the circle- each with a different consultant. Add to that the problems with staff retention in both mental health and primary care and the savage cuts to services and I fear we may have a generation of doctors who no longer know both the pleasure, and responsibility, of the keeping of stories. Instead they have become, like those who saw me in hospital last year, the anonymous faces who struggle to piece enough information together to get through the day safely, relying even more on patients, if they are able, to fill in the necessary gaps. We seem to have forgotten that it is the power of the relationships that are forged between us – professionals and patients- that matter, not the number of ‘contacts’ we have notched up; and these sustain not only our quality of life- but life itself. For me as a doctor it was the power of those stories and my ability over time to make a difference in how they ended that fulfilled me, and sometimes prevented me from moving on even when other things in a job were getting difficult. How much is lack of continuity, and the increasing sense of anomie accompanying it, not only caused by failure to retain staff, but fuelling it?

And, most of all, we patients feel increasingly unsafe  too.

Anonymous, anxious and wary as we wonder: Who is the keeper of my story now?

Recovery during a war on depression

 There has never been an easy time for people with severe mental illness (yes, I am calling it that) to get the help they need to recover, but at the present time it seems harder than it has at some other times in my life. The terrible impact of austerity on the provision of mental health care, combined with the redefining of ‘recovery’ as being capable of economic activity has discriminated against those who are disabled. The results have led too many people to take their own lives.

I have experienced episodes of depression throughout my adult life but I acknowledge that I am fortunate to have been able to retire from work, and to embark on what David Karp the sociologist describes as defining depression as a condition that one can get past. When I am well, as I have been for the last few months apart from a blip before Christmas (work related), I find it hard to remember just how awful I felt the last time I was severely ill. But what I’ve been working at over the last couple of years is trying to reclaim recovery for what I always originally understood it to be. Not 50% reduction in my scores on the PHQ-9, or my ability to work, but re(dis)covering the life I’ve glimpsed at times but never managed to reclaim- because I’ve learned how depression cruelly deceives you by whispering that there is nothing left in life for you. It’s so much more than unhappiness. It’s a way of being.

The current discourse about ‘depression’ hasn’t helped. I’ve spoken on social media about how there seems at times to be a war on antidepressants, but actually I think it’s more than that. I think it’s a war on what I, and many others experience as depression. There is a real sense of denial of experience- of the phenomenon (it’s really ‘misery’ and ‘unhappiness’); of the cause (it’s all about power, threat and meaning– the body doesn’t come into it- despite the fact that depression is undoubtedly experienced in the mind and the body); and the treatment (antidepressants don’t work- and anyway they aren’t antidepressant- they just numb and sedate you); and actually work is good for your mental health. Any work (no it isn’t).

Therapy has become aligned in some places with employment services and in Five Years Forward, ‘depression’ is subsumed under Improving Access to Psychological therapies only. The fact that it can have psychotic features in this setting is sometimes missed by those not trained to recognise this.

What I have learned is that first and foremost you need someone who may not agree with your view of the world, but believes you when you say this is how it is, to be there to guide you through. You have to be able to trust them. Many people find that difficult because of what they have been through in life, but so many health professionals seem to fail to understand the role they must play in engaging you.

Getting access to the right treatment for you is essential. I don’t think depression is homogenous. In my experience the part played by physical, psychological and social factors in its aetiology can change between episodes and over a lifetime. And treatment needs to be similarly tailored. When I was younger I benefited from dynamic psychotherapy in helping me to make sense of my difficult early life. Later, CBT helped me to cope with every day living. And I needed medication- and still do.

At the moment we are still in the midst of a debate between those who say there is incontrovertible evidence that antidepressants work- and those who still say that it’s mostly a placebo effect. I believe they work- for many people – but not for others. I guess one of the problems is that if you accept that medication works on depression then there must be some physical process at work in the brain- at least for some people some of the time. As I’ve said above- I think there is- but many will never be willing to consider that.

Some people experience problems with antidepressants- they can make you feel worse- I experienced awful agitation on fluoxetine. You can also have major difficulties withdrawing from them but I don’t think we yet know the true extent of this. Anecdotal evidence or internet surveys with their inherent bias, are not enough. But I believe that people experience this, and I don’t think my profession has, in the past, taken it seriously enough.

And we need better treatment for those who do not respond to antidepressants. I’ve no doubt from my own experience that people with adverse childhood experiences are less likely to respond to medication and need access to sufficient good quality therapy. The kind I had access to, longer term one-to-one, is now rarely accessible without payment. Yet I cannot see how recovery can be possible, with brief interventions only, for people who need time to build up trust because of what has happened to them in early relationships.

Beyond treatment you have to be able to rediscover living again. For me, that’s the part of the process that feels like healing. I’m still learning from the therapy I had in the past. I am rebuilding a life and finding meaning in existence again.

I am very lucky to be able to do this. It would be wonderful if those who espouse those simple absolutes about what depression is and what recovery involves might reflect on what it is like when no-one will listen to how awful you feel, and people just tell you what you should be believing and doing (what they fervently believe themselves or is economically expedient)- when that seems impossible and intolerable to you.

This is not mental health care- and if it were all I had received I would not be recovering from depression now.

Why I’m fed up with being positive

So many people in the world now seem to be in pursuit of happiness. Worryingly that seems to be perceived to be something that primarily requires us to rework our ‘self’ with all of those self-help books I’ve complained about before; or achieve with very short-term therapy in which you don’t, God forbid, have the opportunity to get dependent on your therapist, even though every one of us, therapists included, are dependent on someone or something. And if you don’t achieve happiness I suspect the conclusion will not be anything to do with the difficulties that you have faced in your life- the traumas of childhood, the struggles of poverty, the lack of meaningful employment or the stigma that you face for being ‘depressed’. No, I am beginning to fear that in this age of relentless positivity the conclusion will be that you simply haven’t been smiling hard enough.

If there is a truly positive place in the world it is America. People serving you in shops and restaurants (mostly) smile at you and wish to ‘have a nice day’ (although the young man in the fish shop in Orkney wished me that today too- sadly). For those of us more cynical Brits who spend time in the USA (like Ruth Whippman in in her recent book ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’) it can be difficult to come to terms with a place where everyone seems to be so determined to find happiness by one means or another. In my favourite bookshop, the Elliott Bay Book Company on the top of Capitol Hill in Seattle, which by the way has a marvelous ice cream shop nearby, I found that the personal development shelves where people go to seek instruction in happiness, have now been relabeled simply as ‘self’. On the top of this section there is now label which simply said ‘self overstock’ which may or may not be intended to be ironic. I didn’t purchase anything, though I did buy a large vanilla cone from next door, which provided some relatively short-lived but exquisite pleasure.

I find the current vogue for dishonestly reframing everything in a positive way really irritating. We are not allowed to have problems any more only strengths.

Well that’s fine. I know I am a resourceful and resilient individual thank you very much with an excellent standing in the community. But can you help me with the fact that my electricity’s been cut off. That’s a problem not a bloody strength. And since I lost my job I’ve been feeling really down and I’ve had no money for 6 weeks while they sort out my benefits. I don’t mind you saying they are problems, because its true, they are, and I need some help.

This persistent and problematic level of positivity seems to have entered almost every aspect of mental health care. I suspect it wouldn’t bother me so much if it was balanced with an acknowledgement that people have real life difficulties that for which they do really need the help of others, especially mental health and social care services. And I have a suspicion that its all really about people becoming more ‘self-sustaining’ and cheaper to run.

The current wave of positivity began with the rise of the Positive Psychology movement almost two decades ago, led by the American psychologist Martin Seligman, previously better known for having come up with the term ‘learned helplessness’ to describe what happens when people feel powerless to change their lives for the better- and proposed as one of the psychological theories for how we get depressed. In her wonderful book Smile or Die: How positive thinking fooled America and the world the journalist Barbara Ehrenreich ably convinces the reader that the ‘positive thinking’ movement has not only pervaded almost every aspect of our world in the 21st century through the influence it has had on business and economic theories, but that it has also done a considerable amount of harm. We have been encouraged to believe that by thinking in ways akin to making magical wishes, we can improve our lot. That by the repetitive act of reading daily ‘affirmations’ and writing gratitude letters to express how we feel about what is positive in our lives we can increase our sense of ‘wellbeing’. Even that by thinking positively we can avoid death from cancer.

Even though the evidence for positive psychology remains weak  when viewed against what we know about other kinds of psychological treatments (and in the case of beating cancer, non-existent), it has consumed all in its path- perhaps supported by the extraordinarily powerful marketing that has accompanied it. Those who have developed it have become gurus and then very successful business people. As Ruth Whippman points out, their expertise is now being purchased to bully the unemployed into feeling better about their job prospects. And positive psychology has found its natural bedfellow in the Recovery movement where there is a similar degree of evangelical positivity about the future prospects of a person struggling with mental health problems. In the recent book Wellbeing, Recovery and Mental Health’  which ‘brings together two bodies of knowledge on wellbeing and recovery’ the authors describe a type of positive psychotherapy for people with severe mental health problems including such strategies as ‘savouring’ (I’m not sure what that means), gratitude letters, and recognizing your signature strengths; once again without providing much good evidence of its effectiveness  other than those who took part had very positive views of the programme. I do hope that was enough for them.

I’m finding all this unwarranted and dishonest positivity quite depressing. Am I alone? Or is this just another instance of my unfortunate learned helplessness?

The morals of Mindfulness

‘I don’t know what it is exactly- no one does- but even my GP tells me I’d benefit from it.’ (The Spectator 17/7/2017)

If you mention  you are seeking help for depression its odds-on somebody will mention mindfulness. It has reached a point where it feels like the thing those of us with anxiety and depression should be doing- the self-evidently right thing to do to get ourselves ‘mentally fit’ (whatever that means), booking in to do a few exercises in the mind gym.

Last week I tweeted:

Untitled

The responses were interesting. Several who felt the same way. A couple suggesting I might approach it in a different way (I’m not going to say that they thought I was doing it wrong, because that would be unkind) and one entrepreneur trying to sell me his latest product.

I’ve been interested in meditation for many years. I don’t want this to sound facetious- but I fear it will- I have often thought that I would like to learn more about Buddhism- if it didn’t require so much effort. One of the most fascinating days of my life was spent in a Zen monastery in Japan. There have been times when I’ve meditated every day, and others when I’ve not. Since retirement I have started again- a little more regularly. I’ve found it helps me to feel more centred and calm. Wanting to learn more about Mindfulness, and having benefited somewhat from learning in the past some ways to cope with ruminations using techniques based on it, I started doing a recommended on-line course. My itinerant lifestyle precludes attending a weekly group, although I think this might have been much better.

At first it was helpful, but then my mood began to dip- related to uncertainties in the world- and the guided mindfulness exercises seemed to make things worse.  The ‘thought clouds’ burst and rained their contents down on me. Being asked to think about the painful things in my life with compassion for myself reduced me to tears, while having to think compassionately about others evoked anger. Haven’t I spent most of my life worrying about everyone else? Isn’t that the problem? I found myself saying. I can’t take this. It was no good. I had to stop.

I have heard of professionals telling clients that Mindfulness will put drug companies out of business. This kind of ridiculous promotion goes on in more muted forms across the media- some of it from researchers who should know better. What we can say is:

  • People respond differently to Mindfulness. We know there are potential adverse effects. Recalling traumatic events, increasing your level of anxiety or depression, depersonalization and even psychosis.
  • Mindfulness is suggested to people who are in the throes of depression (never mind full blown crisis)- but the evidence for its effectiveness during a current episode isn’t great– and there is none at all for Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR- trademarked by Jon Kabat-Zinn). Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy has been shown to prevent recurrence when you’ve had 3 or more episodes and to be as effective as drugs for preventing relapse of depression (reported as ‘Mindfulness is as effective as drugs for treating depression.’) that’s what NICE recommends it for.

There are good reasons why it might not work when you are very depressed. You are preoccupied with anxiety, worries and ruminations. You start to focus on the very things that make you feel worse- your negative thoughts (even though you are only supposed to ‘be aware’- try telling me that when I’m not in control of my thoughts- I find it hard to even pay attention). And anyway you have to motivate yourself to get going.

The other moral objection to mindfulness comes from those who see the promotion of ‘McMindfulness’ as contrary to the values with which meditation is associated in Buddhism. It has become:

  • A personal path to ‘self-fulfillment’ removed from the intention of promoting compassion for others as well as yourself.

And/or

  • A corporate tool with for helping employees work more efficiently- with greater ‘resilience’ in toxic environments- thus putting the burden of responsibility back onto the individual to learn how to cope. I took pills for many years to do that- but it was my choice to- It wasn’t suggested to me by the boss.

Neither seem to be in harmony with the ethics and morals of Buddhist belief.

Indeed the moral imperative to ‘improve yourself’ by practicing mindfulness has something of the Protestant work ethic about it-  I’m only too familiar with that.

We must dust some of the celebrity stardust off Mindfulness and see it for what it is. Another useful tool that will help some but not others. Those of us attracted to meditation will find it helpful- but not when we are acutely depressed. I’m meditating again now- and finding it helpful. I know I have work to do on why ‘self-compassion’ is so hard but I can recognise that,  and I find reading Paul Gilbert’ books on compassion and mindfulness helpful. Others using self-help materials without support might find it much more distressing. Its one of the reasons we need to be alert as to how such tools as mindfulness are being disseminated in the community- and by whom.

We ought not to  promote a therapeutic milieu where people feel they ‘must’ learn to meditate or are told ‘it doesn’t work for you because you aren’t doing it right’ or ‘do this- its better than pills’.

Please.

Damage

‘Mentally ill young woman killed herself hours after NHS staff called her a ‘f**king waste of space’

Sometimes a few words that catch your eye in a newspaper keep coming back to you. This  was from the Mirror a couple of weeks ago. I’m not going to say anything about the details of this particular case, but it set me thinking about the damage that is done to people in the name of care, often by the very people they are told to trust.

Many of you will say, quite rightly, that mental health care has been damaging people for years. I remember a patient of mine who had survived a leucotomy and the half-life he had lived in a long stay ward ever since. I’ve known many who have experienced awful after effects of ECT and medication and I bear responsibility for some of this myself- I was trying to help and sometimes I was successful- but not always. I have given tablets to people, which resulted in them feeling worse than they felt before they started them. But, just like we are now beginning to realize with psychological therapies too, treatments can do good but they can sometimes do harm. But how can verbal abuse by any definition of the word ever be justified as ‘treatment?’

A few days later I read the article about a well know TV presenter and his daughter who is recovering from anorexia. The original is here, (sadly behind a paywall) but it was picked up elsewhere too. He tells how she had felt suicidal after a regime, which

included an expensive regime of forced feeding, no exercise, accompanied lavatory visits to prevent them throwing up the food consumed, and monitored sleep to make sure they didn’t exercise while in bed”.

His daughter resisted and threatened to kill herself.

What I hated most about my job was treating a person against their will. It changed the nature of our relationship, sometimes (but not always) damaging it irreparably. The power inherent in my ability to engage with and forge a therapeutic relationship with a person was, for me, one of the most important and personally satisfying parts of my work. I wanted to work with a person, not against them.

In my years as a consultant I cared for quite a few young and older women with a diagnosis of anorexia and they told me what life was like in the units they had been treated in. Some experienced the style of care they were provided with as ‘punishment’, and for others I have no doubt that is what it was. What I’ve heard recently from people I’ve spoken to who went through some of those strict behavioural regimes (now strongly advised against by NICE) has confirmed that.

So what has this got to do with ‘damage’? Well I think we really do need to consider the long term harm that is inflicted every day when people are told they are ‘dependent’ because a service can only offer short term care, when what we know from attachment theory is that for a person who has never experienced secure, loving relationships, another rejection is the last thing they need. We need to consider how, when young people are sent to beds a very long way from home, this must seem like endless punishment for something they have done wrong but no-one will tell them what it is. We need to think about therapy that ‘does’ to people rather than ‘with’ them (in my experience that doesn’t work either). We need to think how it feels to be asking for help because you feel life is too awful to carry on with, but you are simply told to go away and have a warm bath. When the trauma you went through in childhood or later is simply confirmed by the way in which people treat you now. You are told ‘we have nothing for you,’ or ‘you pose too high a risk for us to manage’ or even ‘You are a f**king waste of space.’

Articles about designing our mental health services utilizing what we know from attachment theory – that the things that have happened to people early in life will affect how they behave and ‘attach’ in adult relationships, have begun to appear. Penelope Campling has talked about the need for ‘intelligent kindness’ from those working in healthcare. Yes, this costs money, and it is much harder to do it when money is short and the system is under such pressure. But some of us have long memories. Attitudes and training of staff were not necessarily so much different when the finances were healthier. Money may help but it wont solve the problem of the how the way care is provided can sometimes do much more harm than good- and the cost may be even greater than doing it differently.

I wonder what happened now to the many young women who ‘resisted’ treatment in the wards where I visited one of my most severely ill patients with anorexia. Who is caring for them now? What long term impact did a rigid unforgiving approach doing things to them rather than with them have on them? I hope that many have recovered but I cannot help wondering if some have been diagnosed with personality disorder for being ‘difficult’ and/or rejected from the system. Resistance in therapy is something to work through with a person, not punish them for.

At the end of the article the TV presenter’s daughter talks about how she was eventually helped to recover, in an NHS day care programme. Her words have stayed with me this month.

‘I had a key nurse who really understood me and saw the Maddy without the demons. She made me realize that inside me was still laughter and joy. I was lucky, but mental-health treatment should not be a lottery. The kind of unit that eventually helped me is all too rare. I feel desperately that things need to change and now is the time for action. Otherwise it will be too late’.

Maybe I am too idealistic. But I’ve resisted being damaged by the system too.

Breaking the rules

Last month was the first since I have been writing a blog that I failed to post anything. In the few days between Christmas and New Year I caught myself thinking:

I haven’t written anything- I must get on with it. In December I told myself I was going to try and blog more not less frequently, and now I haven’t done anything at all.

To be fair to myself, which I am not very often, I am the lead editor of a multi-author book (the second edition of Primary Care Mental Health, to be published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists), which is already past its submission date, and taking up quite a bit of my energy. Not everyone gets his or her chapters to you in time. There are only so many hours in one day when you are trying to do really important things like spend more quality time with your loved one and two storms, Barbara and Connor, pass immediately over your tiny windswept house in succession. But I found myself thinking I really must do this. I should be writing.

 

I’ve spent most of my life making rules for myself. I must work really hard. I must try not to upset other people. It wasn’t until I had cognitive therapy that I was able to identify them for what they are: my crazy rules for living, that I have often castigated myself for failing to live up to. But the problem is that knowing how your mind works doesn’t always stop it from pulling a fast one on you when you aren’t paying attention, and starting to set itself another impossible goal before you realize what it is up to. And before you know it, you’ve gone and done it again- and you are ruminating about something you have said and done- or haven’t done, once more.

But then the strangest thing can happen- and you get a sudden flash of insight- and feel a fool.

Just before the holidays I had to tell someone I am working with on a project that I disagreed with them. This is something that hasn’t always gone well- usually because I get too emotional about things rather than thinking about exactly what I want to achieve from the interaction- another thing that I learned in therapy. When I push my point home a little too hard I have been told I can be scary, even though I am the one who is actually quivering with fear. I told another colleague about what had happened and she just shrugged: They’ll get over it. And suddenly I realized that it was only in my head that it was a big deal. When you ruminate, you can begin to think that the other person knows how much you have been preoccupied by it. But of course they don’t do they?

I wish I had been able to gain the self-confidence earlier in my life to be able to say those four words to myself more often. But I’ve been thinking about them the last few days whenever I start to feel guilty about not posting the blog. I gave myself permission to break a rule – one that I had made myself. Not only was it a relief to do it, but I will get over it!

Happy New Year!

Therapy

I know many people have enormous difficulty accessing therapy for depression- but as someone who has benefited for it, provided it, and supervised others, I realize how fortunate I’ve been, and how important it has been personally for me. Antidepressants have helped me with many of the symptoms of depression, but I still needed to sort out the conflicts and problems in my life that had contributed to the emotional mess in which I found myself. We keep hearing how there will be medication tailored to suit each individual some day, but I don’t think there will ever be a tablet labeled ‘take two a day to come to terms with how you feel about your mother.’

Over a period of about 12 years, during my twenties and thirties I underwent psychodynamic therapy, something in which I had also had some training – with 3 different therapists. Two of them helped me but there was one with whom I simply could not ‘gel’. Finding a therapist with whom you can make some kind of emotional connection is essential. I was able to learn how the problems in my childhood and the dysfunctional relationships I had with both of my parents were still affecting my adult life. I’m quite sure that, at the time, that was the best type of therapy for me. There were some major unresolved issues from my childhood and adolescence that  interfered with my ability to make stable, trusting relationships. I had also spectacularly failed to grieve for my father, who died when I had just qualified as a doctor. There was a period of a few years in my late twenties when my emotional life can only be described as chaotic. With therapy I was able to access the parts of my personality that I had been desperately trying to keep under control, but sometimes the new and more assertive me who emerged from the chrysalis of therapy was more of  an abrupt and outspoken moth still seeking the light of day, than a perfectly finished social butterfly. Nevertheless talking therapy helped me to address some of the difficulties that I had in the major relationships in my life and embark on what has been a successful second marriage.

Later, when undertaking a course of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), I found ways to begin to manage the way I ruminate about being me in this world and to cope more effectively with people in day-to-day life. Therapy was anchored in the present, not the past and I began to learn much more about how my mind actually worked. I could identify my previously unspoken, but very difficult to live up to,‘Rules for Living’ from David Burn’s book the ‘Feeling Good Handbook’, and I began to understand how attempting to live up to my internal very high but often conflicting standards, led to experiencing anxiety in everyday life. It is six years now since I completed that last course of therapy and I am beginning to realize just how long it can take for it to work. I still continue to have new insights into why I am the way I am, and what triggers and sustains those periods of anxiety and low mood, as life goes by. Life is a ‘work in progress’, or at least that is how it has seemed for me.

What most people get offered now in the first instance now is brief therapy, mostly based on CBT principles. For many people that will be very helpful- and when I was supervising a primary care based team of therapists, I saw how effective it could be- particularly if the behavioural aspect of CBT – behavioural activation- was employed first. CBT is very much about ‘doing’ things to feel better. Like setting goals for activities that you may have stopped doing. Or actively trying to address the depressive automatic thoughts that can both trigger and maintain depressed mood- both with the aim of getting you out of the shadow of depression to which you retreated when you lost the energy to fight anymore. In some ways the conceptual basis of brief CBT based therapy isn’t all that different from medication- in that both seek to ‘activate’ either your mind or your body. You get going and take up your life again. You are ‘fixed’ at least for the present as your deficit, of either serotonin or self-esteem ,has been addressed, as Alain Ehrenberg in his book on the sociology of depression, ‘The Weariness of the Self’, clearly describes. And in today’s climate you must of course take responsibility for helping yourself to get fixed- through self-help or presenting yourself at the doctor’s office.

CBT helped me when I was struggling with  my depressive ruminations and it was the right therapy at the right time. But when I was younger, and I couldn’t make sense of who I was or wanted to be, I needed time to build up trust in a therapist, and work on the complex problems from my past that actually interfered with me engaging in therapy in the first place. As I wrote recently, the simple ‘fix’ doesn’t work for a significant number of people who are depressed- particularly those dealing with painful conflicts and the impact of trauma- and we realistically should not expect it to. They need what I was fortunate enough to receive, but it is less available than ever- not only because of cuts, but the prevailing view that depression in primary care is something that can be ‘fixed’. Some people need time to engage, to trust and to work out how to discover who they are and learn how to forgive themselves for even being alive. Some who don’t respond to the simple fix are labeled as having borderline personality disorder- and their anguish is downgraded to ‘distress’ but they too are experiencing something that is only one aspect of the many faceted but hard to define experience that we call ‘depression’. I can assure you that it is real and those who suffer from it kill themselves.

Those who need more than the quick fix are  just as deserving of our attention- and our help.

 

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

Moods

Not everyone who gets depressed recognizes the experience of simply ‘feeling low’. The pain of emotional suffering comes in many different forms. The agony of heartache; the exhausted feeling of weariness with the world; the anguish and torment of ruminative thoughts of guilt and despair; the perception, which can develop into a terrible sensation of being beyond any feeling at all, that all of the joy has simply gone out of being alive. A sense that the world has gone from being a place where there is still a potential for happiness, to one which seems empty, hopeless or even dead.

But each day I am aware of something I call my mood. I have more time now to reflect on my life from moment to moment than when I was working. Rushing around all day meant that I was probably less acutely aware of it and yet my mood is a key part, for me, of my experience of ‘being in the world’. It’s the lens through which I see what is happening around me- and its qualities on any particular day colour, clarify or even completely distort the different ways I am able to think about myself, the world around me and what will happen in the future- just as when I was a child, the Hall of Mirrors in the fairground warped my reflection: sometimes I was amused by the altered image that was reflected back to me. Other times it horrified me.

Mood is more than simply ‘feelings’ or ‘emotions’- it’s a longer lasting state of mind and it encompasses everything you are thinking about- it can transform how you view events around you and change something which yesterday you thought was a great opportunity into tomorrow’s disaster in the making. We aren’t always aware of our mood but the people around us often are. My mood is not only the spectacles I wear but the overcoat I show to the outside world.

My mood is both me and yet not me, simultaneously. I cannot manage without my glasses. I know, rationally, when I feel down that if I could will myself in some way to change them to a different pair, the world wouldn’t look as bad as it does to me at that moment, but those are the only ones I possess. Tomorrow, or even tonight things may appear differently though them, brighter, sparkling and full of hope. My mood has never been ‘high’ –However I do have periods of irritation and agitation when I can get very angry with people around me when I don’t think they are doing what I think is the ‘right’ thing. But what I perceive as ‘right’ can also change with my mood. When I’m feeling positive even the things I find most boring can seem worth doing. At times my mood seems to be balanced on a knife edge- it can change within the space of a few hours. But then it can remain stable for months.

When something really seems to shift in my mood, it is as though some unseen being in my brain pulls a lever.  Usually this happens in response to a build up of life events (yes, social factors play a key part), and when these events are of a particular kind that holds an inherent threat to my sense of who I am (the psychological part), then my mood is much more likely to shift, and quite rapidly too. When I was working full time I could move from feeling anxious, but keeping my head above water, to quite a different state of mind, within a day. When I am there I feel quite different. I don’t only feel sad, I feel physically ‘changed’; heavy of limb, tired, unable to sleep yet also very agitated. I ruminate about things that at other times I would be able to cope with easily. I am full of fear as the negative thoughts I have about myself the world and the future come flooding back.

If I am going to manage my moods more effectively I know that I need to work harder at challenging my familiar, but hard to live up to, rules about how to live in this world that I identified in therapy. But I mustn’t beat myself about the head if I am not able to do it every time. Making another rule for living that I cannot keep is not the answer. I fantasize about being the kind of disciplined person that meditates every morning, exercises every afternoon and eats a healthy supper in the evening, doing everything that I know is ‘good’ for mental health.

I want to be able to keep the awful low periods and those hopeless suicidal thoughts at bay if I can, but if I don’t succeed I have to remind myself that, with time and care, the way I see the world usually changes once more.

The first rule we often have to challenge in life is that it is unacceptable to fail.

My memoir: The Other Side of Silence: A psychiatrists’s memoir of depression is available now.

Authenticity

Oxford dictionary: Authentic – adjective: ‘relating to or denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life’.

My 60th birthday has come and gone. My body is beginning to fall apart but I still feel 16 inside. Life is a ‘work in progress’, or at least that is how it has always seemed for me. I get depressed from time to time and it’s such a truly awful experience that it’s hard to believe there can be any positives from suffering it, even if evolutionary biologists suggest there might be. But I recognise that its impact on my life has enabled me to begin to see more clearly what is really important : my relationships and my writing.

When you are someone with mental health problems it can be difficult to work out who is the real ‘authentic’ version of you. Even if people aren’t really talking about me, am I the oversensitive person who will always think they are? Or maybe that is one side of me, amongst many different faces. There are times still when I wonder whether the medicated me I’ve been for so long is the ‘real’ me, or are these tablets simply suppressing the person I truly am? When I worked in addictions people would ask me the same kind of questions.

‘Who will I be without the alcohol? Will I be able to live with myself? Will other people?’

‘Why am I so different when I’m drinking heavily? Yet sometimes that feels like the real me- the one who is trying to get out and cause havoc?’

One of my patients used to give me brutal feedback about the colour of my nail polish (I had a gothic period- which on reflection I’m still passing through) when she was going high. When she was well she would insist on apologizing when she really didn’t have to- she was just expressing another, very perceptive, part of herself that was usually kept in check.

When my mood is irritable and agitated, I can come out with the kind of comments that would be much better left unsaid- and certainly not shouted. From psychodynamic therapy I learned about the parts of me I was repressing, but they don’t have the best of social graces. In cognitive therapy I found ways to manage the way I ruminate about being me in this world. It’s far from a perfect fit, but who is to judge what is perfect?

Damien Ridge highlighted 4 different aspects of recovering from depression after talking to people who were, or had experienced it. (I am talking here about recovery in its original meaning as a personal journey not a service driven imperative).

  • Preventing depression from occurring in the first place
  • Limiting the impact of actual episodes of depression
  • Recovering from the effects of depression in the short and long term
  • Re-working the self so that is more functional or authentically felt

I haven’t succeeded in preventing episodes and, as one reviewer commented about my book, perhaps it would be fair to say my story illustrates well the limits of medicine. Neither talking nor tablets, separately or together, have provided a complete answer. My current doctor thinks I would have been in hospital over the last few years without the treatment I’ve had, and I think he is probably right. I can limit the impact of episodes now, and I’ve been able to live and work while experiencing bouts of depression.

I cannot always remember what the ‘depressed me’ is like until she wholly inhabits me once more. I can only say that being ‘her’ is not a good feeling in any way, it means feeling cut off from the rest of the world, unable to communicate, as though there is a thick ground glass screen between me and the rest of life. I can hear and see something of what is going on but I don’t feel any part of it, and it fills me with fear. I don’t want to be her, and so far I’ve managed to get away from her much of the time in the last 20 years, but has that been the right thing to do?

The writer Will Self, who is fiercely against taking tablets for depression has said that ‘from the stand point of the 20th century, to be melancholic is good mental health’. He has been able to employ his own personal experience of it to gain insights into extraordinary ways of viewing the world. Would I have had a different perspective on life if I had persisted in trying to cope in a different way? For instance by writing, painting my way out of depression or seriously learning how to meditate – or even, dare I say it, attempting to rediscover the faith I had as a teenager?

The problem I have is that it’s been nigh on impossible to open a book when I’ve been severely low, never mind sit down at a laptop and type. I would love to have been able to write my way out of depression, but it’s not possible for me. I can only work when I’m ‘well’ and I cannot help but see the world through the lenses of the treatment I have had- the ideas I have taken on board from therapy, and in particular the medication I still swallow every morning and evening. They certainly seem to alter my perception of the world in some way to make it a less hostile place.

For thirty years my major role in life was being a doctor. It both satisfied me and punished me. The thought that I might ever have to return to work again as a doctor fills me with anxiety, but I’m still registered with the General Medical Council. The alternative was being ‘erased’ which sounded like I had done something wrong, when I hadn’t. The act of giving up my work as a health professional stands in the way of what I’ve felt was my raison d’etre – helping other people.

Last month, more than 2 years after retiring, I shredded all the paperwork relating to my annual appraisals over the last 15 years (or whenever they began). There is no going back even though I miss that sense of being part of the ‘real’ world on the front line of health care. Now I have time to find out more about the person I really am and what I want to do next. There is some important unfinished business with my ‘self’.

“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” C.G Jung

My memoir on depression and psychiatry: The Other Side of Silence- A psychiatrist’s memoir of depression, is available now.