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?

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

The diagnosis

It is only 6 words.

‘I think you have polycystic kidneys.’

But there is nothing simple about being given a diagnosis. It means interaction with a new world of people and initiation into a different way of life – the doctors, nurses, therapists, surgeons, technicians, and the places you will find them in- the new hospital clinic you haven’t been to before, the x ray department, the laboratory, each with their own particular perspective on your illness and what is going to be best for you- body and/or mind. It is about learning how to speak in a different language. It is also about your own memories, ideas, worries and expectations of what that diagnosis means to you, and all the other things you will have to do in your life, or have done to you, that you have never experienced before and hoped that you never would have to. And all those things that you hoped to be able to do, but now perhaps never will.

I don’t have much memory now of how kidneys should work. Blood flows in and urine flows out- and the kidney works some kind of magic in between. The first patient whom I cared for long enough in my first job as a doctor to get to know as a person, and who I then saw die, had kidney disease. It was very different from my own. He had diabetes and came into hospital when a viral illness sent his damaged kidneys into failure. I listened in the ward office to the renal team as they decided against taking him on for dialysis, which unlike now was very unusual for patients with diabetes as they ‘did badly’. I watched from the door of the single room where he spent his last few days as he said goodbye to his wife and children. He was a young man- no more than 40. And I felt even more helpless as his wife screamed out in agony at the sheer unfairness of his sudden, and so unexpected passing. A phrase, ‘The Renal People’ uttered by the surgeon, a very kind and well-meaning man, evoked a particular and unwelcome memory for me.

Despite feeling fitter than I had for years, it felt as though my body had let me down. Something was happening inside me over which I had no right of determination. For the first few days after the surgeon delivered his verdict I felt numb. Then, like many people, but especially doctors, I spent hours on-line researching the subject until the rational part of my brain was exhausted. I collapsed onto the easy chair in my study and burst into tears. I sobbed until my throat was hoarse, my chest was tight and my shirt was wet with tears. John put his arms around me and held me. I knew I was beginning to grieve for the loss of my health, and the hopes I had for the future. And it all seemed so terribly unfair. Just `at the point that I had given up the work that was gradually killing me, and was prepared to restart that life I had postposed for so long, I had to find out that something else was going to do that anyway. The sociologist Mike Bury talks about the biographical disruption of chronic illness- how it necessitates a fundamental re-thinking of one’s biography and self-concept. The timeline of my life has been fractured and it is still physically painful.

Now I know that I have a genetic disorder of the kidneys that I’ve had for many years, but didn’t know about before, and which is going to get worse as I get older, at a rate as yet undetermined. There is a possibility I will eventually need to have dialysis. My kidneys and liver contain within them cysts, which have been slowly growing in size, squashing the healthy tissue into destruction since my childhood, or that is what the Professor of Nephrology had told me.

‘It is something you have always had. It isn’t new. Its autosomal dominant so you have a 50% chance of developing it if one of your parents carries the gene, but in about 10% of cases it’s a new mutation.’ He couldn’t understand why investigations carried out in my early thirties hadn’t revealed the problem then. As the years passed the timer on my kidneys had been ticking away silently inside me and I had been completely unaware. It had been programmed into me at birth and was probably running quite slowly otherwise it would have been noticed much sooner. But I suspected that the other problems that my family genes had contributed to- a constant sense of anxiety and periods of severe depression, would have been even harder to bear if I had known. Neither of my parents had been diagnosed with kidney disease as far as I knew before they died, but my maternal grandmother had collapsed in the street and died suddenly in her thirties. I’ve always believed that must have been due a brain hemorrhage, and brain aneurysms are a possible complication of this disease.

It may be impossible to ‘recover’, in terms of restitution to my former state of ‘health’, in mind or body and I have no idea what will happen in the future- other than I hope I can manage my mood more effectively than in the past, and that it is possible I may need renal dialysis at some point. I can no longer make the excuse that I am still waiting for the future to arrive before I have to reclaim the life I always wanted to live if I just had the time. The ‘future’ is now and I will have to discover how I can make the most of it.

My latest book, a memoir of psychiatry and depression, The Other Side if Silence is available now

 

 

 

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.

Do self-help books work?

 

Having just returned from the USA where all bookshops have extensive sections on ‘self improvement’, and ‘self-help’ is big business, I couldn’t help thinking Bridget Jones had the right idea when she tossed them all into the bin. As a lifelong cynic I find the wilder claims made by some authors completely beyond the pale. I simply don’t believe that reading a book by a well know hypnotist can make me rich, thin or universally loved, but I do know that selling this promise has certainly made him wealthy.

So when I got home to Yorkshire I scanned my bookshelves to see how many I could find. There were a few more than I suspected, including two celebrity endorsed books on nutrition and fitness, a book for the ‘highly sensitive person’ (how to thrive when the world overwhelms you); a guide to help people who live with a person diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (I’ve absolutely no idea why I bought that- but perhaps it was a present for my other half). Similarly there was an aging copy of ‘Do I Have to Give Up Me to be Loved by You?’ with a photograph of the idyllically happy couple who authored it on the back. Where and when did I get that? Under one of the piles on my study floor I later found a copy of ‘Organising for the Creative Person’ … clearly ineffective.

However, to be serious, I can understand why self-help books are so popular:

  • A book is cheaper than therapy- and easier to obtain.
  • A book provides not only information, but hope, inspiration and things that you can practically do to solve my problems.
  • There is a vast choice of different books on offer. When one doesn’t work you can always try another.
  • The answer to your problems- all in one book?

I didn’t write my memoir as a ‘self-help’ book, but I’ve heard from readers who have found it helpful in explaining what depression is and how it can be treated. I hoped my story would provide some insight and hope for others living with depression, but it doesn’t contain much direct advice or strategies for coping. I just don’t have a simple, straightforward solution that will fit everyone who gets depressed. My explanation is more complicated… that everyone has their own experience of depression, and the parts played by psychological, biological or social factors not only differ between us, but change throughout our lives. Nevertheless some bookshops include my book in the ‘personal development’ section and maybe that is one place it fits.

The books that really trouble me suggest:

  • There is a single, simple answer to your problem
  • What has happened to you is essentially your own fault and there are things you should do to overcome this.
  • Strategies that may actually be harmful- such as stopping all prescribed medication because the author hasn’t personally found it helpful- and failing to tell you to discuss it first with your doctor, or get some informed advice about how to withdraw gradually.

And if you cannot get any benefit from the strategies that are suggested then this can lead you to blame yourself (if you are not doing that already) and feel even worse. Many of the things that cause us problems are not under our control, so we might feel even more helpless because we cannot change them.

But can they really help? There is remarkably limited research into this question. Self-help books really do seem to be effective for some people, but most of the published evidence is from those that apply ideas taken from cognitive behaviour therapy. ‘Guided’ self-help where the book is used in conjunction with brief sessions from a therapist, in which you can discuss what you have read, ask questions and generally be supported through the process of change, is more effective than simply reading a book on its own. Information alone isn’t enough- support is also important in helping people to help themselves.

Self-help is also more likely to work if you are highly motivated to seek help, and positively choose it, not have it prescribed to you- which was clearly found to be a problem in the recent study of computerised CBT prescribed to people with depression, in which I played a minor part. And a person with more severe depression simply may not have the drive and energy to find that motivation- which is one of the reasons I find the exhortation to ‘Climb Out of Your Prison’ (the title of a bestseller in the genre) so problematic, even though this idea clearly has currency for some. I’ve previously written on this blog about the crass insensitivity of handing information and leaflets out to people with severe mental health problems and those who are in crisis.

What one person will find a helpful idea will be an anathema to others. The social scientist Bergsma, writing in the Journal of Happiness Studies (yes, it exists) suggests that self-help books ‘offer a strong antidote against learned helplessness… but perhaps for readers that do not suffer from it.’ And current health policy supports the idea that we should all be responsible for ourselves, however unwell we happen to be, rather than dependent on the state.

Books can provide information and inspiration, but they can only point to possible directions in which to travel. According to Susan Krauss Whitborne, writing in Psychology Today the prospective reader might do 5 things:

  • Check out the author’s credentials- who are they? How are they qualified to write on the topic- and that doesn’t mean they have to an academic reputation or be famous.
  • Think of the book as your therapist: work done by Rachel Richardson and her colleagues at the University of York suggests that a successful self-help book establishes a relationship with you, gives you hope, confidence and anticipates you will find it difficult to keep going at times. Just like a good therapist.
  • Look critically at the quality of the writing. Is it going to ‘engage you, enrage you or just bore you to tears?’
  • Decide if the book will motivate you.
  • Don’t be afraid to give it a critical reading.

I have just remembered there are several more bookshelves in Scotland – and that’s where the latest ones are…on mindfulness.

If you ever hear that I am writing a self-help book, please remind me to re-read this blog.

My memoir ‘The Other Side of Silence: A Psychiatrist’s Memoir of Depression’ is available now.

The morals of medication

Is taking medication for depression the ‘easy option?’ I come across this viewpoint regularly on social media. Usually there is a suggestion alongside that therapy, which I completely agree is hard work, is somehow a purer way to recover. The right way.

The history of psychiatry is rich in references to morality. Is a person ‘mad’ or ‘bad’? Is there really something wrong in the brains of those society labels as bad? Is addiction an illness or simply a behaviour choice? Are we excusing bad behaviour by medicalising it?

Many people who consider medication for depression will find themselves wondering whether it is a ‘good’ thing to take it. When you are depressed it can be very difficult to decide what is the best thing to do, and decisions are taken not only on the basis of discussion with health professionals- moral judgments also play an important part.

  • How does taking antidepressants affect how I feel about me? Does it mean that I am weak?
  • Is it the easy option?
  • Shouldn’t I be able to sort myself out without them?
  • What will other people think- my family- my friends…will it change how they see me?

Alice Malpass and her colleagues identified two parallel journeys that the depressed person embarks on. The ‘medical’ journey goes something like this:

  • I have a duty to be well. Other people need me to be well.
  • If I recover then there won’t be any risk of being seen as ‘mentally ill’.
  • I can get back to my old self and be in charge of my life again.

I’m sure I’ve used some of these arguments in conversation with patients. Any doctor who says they haven’t is not telling the truth- but to consider these are the only things of concern about medication is inherently simplistic and paternal, and reminds me of the cartoon of a couple walking along a beach, smiling and carefree, who say they feel so good they must be in a pharma advert.

In parallel the person is perhaps also on another journey- the ‘moral’ one.

  • I feel awful because I have to ask for help.
  • I feel even worse because I need to take tablets.
  • Is this person the real, authentic me? Am I now my old self or someone else? Or am I only this person because I am on tablets?
  • Am I hooked on these now?

Damien Ridge, who has analysed many interviews with people who are depressed talks not only about the lack of legitimacy for tablets, but also for what they are being prescribed for.

  • Is ‘depression’ real?
  • Shouldn’t I just ‘pull myself together’? Isn’t that what everyone else thinks?

There is a great deal of literature on whether ‘depression’ is ‘real’ or simply no more than unhappiness. And if it isn’t real, then the treatment for it cannot be legitimate either, little better than using street drugs- as one person in Ridge’s paper calls his tablets: ‘My dirty little habit’. I’ve spent my career arguing that to use the term depression is not simply medicalising misery but giving a name to a particular experience and quality of suffering which is not just unhappiness but a deep, dark, hopeless, despair. It has many causes, and it isn’t a single ‘phenomenon’ whatever DSM tells us. But it’s a state of mind that many people with different stories share in common. I experience it too. I have asked all of these questions of myself. I have watched colleagues who work in mental health look a little embarrassed when I get out the tablets at breakfast. Perhaps I do that simply to show I am not ashamed- but I do wish I could have lived my life without them.

All of the above supposes that antidepressants do actually work. Many people think they don’t, and others think they can do harm. You can find my views on these points elsewhere on this blog. I take them myself and they keep me reasonably well, but I have friends and colleagues for whom they have not worked- the medical journey is inherently optimistic- just like the pharma ads, but in reality life is far more complicated. And they are never sufficient on their own.

If doctors, and sometimes friends and family, try and influence you to focus on the ‘medical journey’ then others will try to steer your moral journey. It is really hard to focus on what is right for you when you cannot think clearly. When you are depressed, you are already struggling with guilt and shame and sometimes that can tragically end with the decision that the world is better off without you- that this is the right thing to do.

So I would only ask those who make even subtle comparisons between the easy way to ‘block out the pain’ with meds and the hard way of suffering through therapy to think before they write. It is only human to want to alleviate pain, and sometimes the tablets are the only thing that will do it. To infer that a person needs to suffer in order to be blessed is one of the ultimate moral judgments- and can be found in most religions.

Depressed or not, clinician or service user, expert or lay person-none of us have the right to sit in judgment over others.

My memoir: The Other Side of Silence: A Psychiatrist’s Memoir of Depression is available now.

 

 

 

 

Borderline Traits

A recent reviewer of my memoir about depression and psychiatry has noted that in describing the emotional mess of my early adult years and on-going struggles with low mood, I ‘courageously come close to defining traits of Borderline Personality Disorder’.

I really don’t mind her saying that- indeed part of me is actually surprised that she is the first person to do so. I purposefully included a description of my difficulty in relationships, mood swings and problems in trusting others alongside a description of similar problems in one of my own patients. I wanted to show not only the variety of ways that people can experience what we commonly call ‘depression’, but also how my own problems mirrored those of my patients, such that there was very little distance between us.

By this time, in my early thirties, I had already had quite a long period of psychodynamic therapy but was still having problems:

 I didn’t know how to begin to contain these frightening feelings when they took hold of me. There were times when I felt low in mood and physically exhausted, as though there was a weight bearing down on my chest, which prevented me from moving. On other occasions, it seemed as though anything and everything was possible. At those times I did seem to lose control and retreat from reality. It was then that the suicidal thoughts would return, although by then usually only fleetingly.

Nevertheless, I recognised only too well the persistent state of emotional chaos that Elizabeth Wurtzel described in her book, Prozac Nation. I particularly empathised with her when she talked about wanting a therapist who could help her to learn to be a grown-up and to show her how to live in a world where the phone company didn’t care that you were too depressed to pay the phone bill.   (From The Other Side Of Silence: A psychiatrist’s memoir of depression)

 I’m well aware that there are features of my personality and behaviour that could well be called ‘borderline traits’ and it’s interesting that no one else has mentioned this. Is it because I am a Professor of Psychiatry? Is this the kind of thing one shouldn’t  say to me?  Most people have been incredibly supportive about my honesty, but others- including one or two mental health professional colleagues, have seemed a little embarrassed by my openness. Some will have been on the receiving end of some of my irritability and anger in the past- which is always much worse when my mood is going down. If so, I can only offer my apologies, but might add that in my experience some mental health services can be less than sufficiently understanding of the emotional problems of those whom they employ.

As time goes by my views are changing, despite having written on the topic of Personality Disorder in the BMJ; and this largely because of my anger at the lack of access to appropriate therapy for people who need and deserve help, rather than abuse. I’ve always been aware that people like me who perhaps have ‘difficult’ personalities (I prefer to think there are also times when I can be very warm, creative and caring too) are often dealt a bad deal by mental health services, when they get depressed. Our difficulties with early attachments both make relationships difficult to cope with, and predispose us to longer periods of more severe depression and anxiety as well. I have considerable sympathy with the view put forward by Peter Tyrer that Borderline Personality Disorder is ‘neither borderline nor a personality disorder’. People given this label describe ‘symptoms’ for which they desperately seek help, and don’t demonstrate persistent and inflexible ‘traits’. Their problems are not necessarily lifelong (which I understand personality traits as being), and they can be helped to change over time.

My mood is still unstable at times, but not to degree it was before I had the right kind of therapy to help me comes to terms both my past with how to survive in the world. I also need medication to stop me from plunging down into prolonged despair- with all the associated physical symptoms of anxiety and depression.

People who have problems with their mood don’t fit into neat boxes. As I’ve argued before, diagnoses have their place in terms of research and predicting likely response to treatment, but they should be used alongside a plan that addresses their main presenting life problems, range of symptoms and underlying aetiological factors that may be maintaining the status quo. Some will call this a formulation, but it’s not simply a psychological one- it addresses all three of the key areas- biological, psychological and social.

We need to design the treatment around the person- looking at what they need, not excluding on the basis of a diagnosis that has become for many, a term of abuse. I know many will still want to use the term ‘borderline’ because it can help get access to the right kind of therapy; but we need to acknowledge that the difficulties some of us have with managing certain aspects of everyday life (without, for me, a little drama on occasions) are simply degrees of the extraordinary diversity of humanity- differences that we should learn to celebrate not abjure.

PS- my husband proofreads my blogs- and says life with me has always been a bit of a roller coaster at times- but he wouldn’t swap me for anything.

 

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.

 

 

Children and young people first

There are some images from my six months as registrar in child psychiatry that stay with me.

It was the early 1980s and the social worker and I were visiting a young single parent living on the 9th floor of a tower block in Salford 6. She had just moved back to live with her parents after the breakdown of her relationship. As she opened the door we were greeted by her 6 year old daughter, a pretty little girl who danced towards us, twirling around in circles. Only she continued to twirl around, and around, and around the overcrowded space completely absorbed in in own world. According to her mother she spent much of the day performing an unearthly dance between the furniture and screaming loudly every time she was prevented from doing this. She had no words. I could see how much her mother and grandparents loved her, but their faces were lined with desperation. The young mother already had the air, and appearance of someone at least a decade older than her years.
“I’ve been told she’s autistic,” she said, starting to cry, “but I don’t know how to cope with her…I just can’t, and now my husband has left me.”

It wasn’t difficult to see what was needed was some intensive support for the whole family. It was then, as now, in short supply but that didn’t stop us trying to put it in place. In my time at the clinic in the old Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital in Salford (not the shiny new one at the Infirmary) I witnessed over and again the impact of serious mental health problems and difficulties on families already struggling to cope in unsuitable or substandard housing. And it reminded me, sometimes too often, of the impact that the problems of my younger brother, who developed obsessive compulsive disorder at the age of 7, had on my own parents’ physical and mental health.

As my friends will know, I’m not particularly ‘good’ with children (I have none of my own) so when I was on-call over the weekend I struggled to try and strike up conversations with silent teenagers in the paediatric ward, the day after they had taken an overdose. They usually went something like this:
‘Hello, my name is Doctor Gask. And your name is Jenny- is that right?’
Silence…no eye contact…a reluctant nod.
‘I really wanted to find out what happened to you- to see if we can help…is that okay?’
…’I suppose so.’
‘OK. So would you like to tell me what happened yesterday?’
More silence.
I soon learned, by watching the consultant I was attached to, a kind and extraordinarily astute child psychiatrist who was close to retirement, that direct questions were not the way to engage a young person in talking about their problems. If they turned up for a follow up appointment- and that often unfortunately depended on whether their parents saw the need for them to have any help, not only their own willingness to come, he would set about making a young person feel at ease, without actually appearing to make any effort at all. He would smile like a genial grandfather, and simply strike up a chat about things completely unrelated to the events that had brought them into hospital: their favourite pop stars (they were not called ‘bands’ then), hobbies, best friends and gradually build trust before moving onto the thorny question of why they had taken the tablets. After forty minutes or so he would be ready to ask: ‘So how would you like things to be different?’ followed by ‘I wonder how we can help you with that…should we try and look at that together?’

I realized quite soon into my six months working with children and young people that this wasn’t where I wanted to be for the rest of my career. I didn’t have the kind of skills and patience that the consultant had. I found it difficult to work with families where children whose apparently quite normal behavior did not meet the expectations of their parents. In particular I felt angry when parents failed to take up the offer of help because of their perception (perhaps rightly so) that we were suggesting the difficulties their children presented with had a great deal to do with their own life problems and parenting style.

However what I did learn, and has never left me, was the acute awareness of how the people I saw later in their lives with depression and anxiety, in their twenties, thirties and older, had first developed difficulties with their mental health in their youth. This was where their problems had begun.

I returned to work in Salford 20 years later and helped to set up a primary care based mental health team. Our base, at first, was in a building attached to the old Salford Royal Hospital where I had attempted and failed to strike up conversations on a Saturday morning. Only now the building, like many older hospitals, had been converted into luxury flats. As I discussed in supervision, with the Psychological Wellbeing Practitioners, the problems of the people being referred to us, I was acutely aware that the generation we had struggled to help back in the 80’s were the very people now presenting to the mental health services. What happens to us in early life- our relationships, experiences within our own families, continues to have an impact on our mental well-being for the rest of our lives.

Services for children and young people with mental health problems have never been well funded and now in the UK they have been cut more than ever before. What services do exist are withdrawn at school leaving age and very many of those who have succeeded in getting help fail to meet the ever more selective criteria of adult mental health services, unless they have been lucky enough to be seen in some of the newer services which don’t recognize this traditional cut-off point, which is completely unsupported by what we now know from research:

not only that adult mental health disorders are common in the population, but that most of them have their onset by adolescence. This period of life after puberty also sees a range of important organisational developments in the brain that last until the late 20s and usher in adulthood as might be defined from a developmental rather than a social or legal point of view.’

Yet this is exactly the period when adequate mental health care is perhaps most difficult to access.

I was recently asked in an interview (by Ruth Hunt) what my priority would be for funding when the new money promised for mental health care, too little once more, finally arrives. I didn’t hesitate. It has to be for children and young people, if we are going to begin to try and prevent the cycle of suffering. More families failing to cope and the next generation experiencing the same problems.
It has to be children and young people first.

My memoir about depression and Psychiatry: The Other Side of Silence is available now