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.

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.

 

 

I’m a psychiatrist and I live with depression

I am a psychiatrist, and I’ve had depression on and off for most of my adult life. I’m now retired from practice. I’ve written about depression in a book, and people are saying how brave I am to ‘come out’ and say it. Yet if I had written about having arthritis, or some other physical condition, no one would have described my ‘coming out’ in such terms. Why should it be such a surprise that a a person who worked as a consultant psychiatrist for almost 25 years, and has spent her life researching and teaching the subject, should have first hand experience of it herself? Probably because, in the health professions, the last thing we usually want anyone to know, particularly our colleagues, is that we too are vulnerable to exactly the same stresses and problems as our patients. We like to see ourselves as strong; indeed maintaining our position on the career ladder often seems to depend on that. There is stigma related to having depression, even though mental health workers profess that they are always ‘fighting’ it. Depression is something that others suffer from, not us.

It is exactly this ‘us’ and ‘them’ attitude that I set out to challenge in the book. It started off as a memoir of my own fairly extensive treatments for depression, both with medication and psychotherapy. However as I began to write it, the close parallels between my own experiences, and those of the people I had tried to help throughout my professional life just became more and more obvious to me. There certainly wasn’t a clear boundary between my own experiences and those of my former patients. We all had complex lives- experienced loss, grieved for those who have gone from our lives, felt lonely, wanted to be loved, and sometimes felt compelled to self medicate with alcohol to ease our distress. Some of us made the same mistakes in our relationships over and over again. Many of us wanted or even tried to end our lives. The stories I tell in the book are taken from my own work as a psychiatrist but have been extensively altered and merged to create people who are true to life, but not ‘real’ case histories. However my own story is very real indeed. It wouldn’t have been appropriate to have been so open when I was still practising- when people came to see me the focus was rightly on their problems not mine. When I was unwell I withdrew from seeing patients until I was recovered. I’ve never tried to hide my illness from colleagues. I’ve just never been quite so public about it.

So far, I’ve had some interesting reactions. As I mentioned above, I’ve been described as brave by some, but others are still clearly unsure what to say to me. When I’ve talked in the past about treatment, in particular the fact that I’ve taken antidepressants now for the last 20 years, I’ve certainly picked up from some of my colleagues that ‘this isn’t the sort of thing one talks about’. Why not? Isn’t this exactly what mental health professionals talk about every day? How can we challenge stigma in society if we cannot face up to our own tendency to stigmatise both our colleagues and, even now, our patients?

I have listened to junior members of staff describe people with depression who are not actively suicidal, or psychotic as the ‘worried well’. I’ve been told that depression is not a ‘severe’ mental illness warranting more investment of psychiatric and mental health nursing resources. I’ve read articles written by my colleagues, which describe it as ‘medicalising misery’. Only people who have never experienced the pain, despair and hopelessness could talk about depression in such terms. I’ve spent my life challenging such attitudes. I made it as far as being a Professor of Psychiatry, despite repeated episodes of depression. I know I’ve had better treatment than many people ever receive and my aim has always been to improve access to, and quality of care for depression. I’ve managed to live with depression and found ways of coping with it- though that has been far from easy. That is also what my book is about. I refuse to be ashamed of it.

Nobody should be.

My book, ‘The Other Side of Silence: A Psychiatrist’s Memoir of Depression’ is published this week by Summersdale.

Two units under

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listening to your body

“Listen to your body,” they always tell you…whoever they are. “If you are feeling tired and exhausted it means you are overdoing it.” I used to tell people that to. After all our body and mind are inextricably linked. What is going on inside my head will have an impact on how I am feeling, and vice versa.

But what if you don’t only ‘listen to your body’ but watch it too? Monitor it closely every day for changes. Observe how aches and pains seem to shift mysteriously from one joint to another. How your heart misses a beat, or speeds right up more often than it used to. How the pain that you woke with again today in your right arm (which you have self-diagnosed as tennis elbow) has increased in intensity as the small hand has moved around the kitchen clock…probably because you’ve been thinking about it all the time. And the more you dwell on it, the worse it becomes. “Is it arthritis?” you are beginning to ask yourself.

The fingers of both of my hands are stiff now every morning, and the base of my left thumb was painful again today opening the jam jar at breakfast. I know that my uncle developed rheumatoid arthritis when he was my age. He went from being a fit and healthy middle-aged man to a stooped elderly person wracked with pain in the course of only a year. Could this be happening to me? I told one of the GPs I see about my joint pains recently. I’m supposed to have a blood test- but I haven’t yet. I don’t know if I want to know the status of my anti-rheumatoid factor. I’ve started to worry much more about my health than I used to. The number of chronic conditions I have is slowly increasing…and with them my level of anxiety.

I’ve seen many people in my life with what used to be called ‘Medically Unexplained Symptoms, (MUS)’ (and have now been given the name Bodily Stress (or Distress) Syndrome although terminology differs between psychiatric classifications and will almost certainly change again). Symptoms for which there is no clear medical cause, although many suspect that if you look really hard you might find some physiological explanation for them. They were once called ‘functional’ symptoms and milder versions are really common in primary care and out-patient clinics. For example, around 50% of people who are seen in gastrointestinal clinics with new symptoms have a problem for which no obvious medical cause can be found. However, some people are severely disabled by multiple symptoms. They most commonly occur in the presence of other diagnosed and often chronic illness, and may be a sign of anxiety and depression, but this is not always the case. A person with otherwise unexplained symptoms often denies having any other problems that are worrying them, either psychological or social. Sometimes it becomes clearer later that they do indeed have a medical cause for their problems; we found this happened in about 10% of patients over an 18-month follow up period. Missing ‘real pathology’ is what a doctor fears (although they do seem less worried about missing mental health problems). I specialized in not only trying to help people with unexplained symptoms, but in doing research into how to train GPs to help them more effectively and be more understanding about their concerns. And I will admit here I have always experienced them myself to some degree too.

And now I find one particular person keeps coming back into my mind.

Jeff (not his real name) worried about pains all over his body, which he had for many years. He had multiple investigations, almost all of which showed nothing very much of note. We sat down together to go through his general hospital case notes together so we could discuss all the tests that had been carried out in several different departments. I always found this a helpful exercise in beginning to find a common ground with someone. Checking out what we could agree were the problems both in life and with health, and where we disagreed. Whatever the health worries, we could usually agree that the disability and pain interfered with their quality of life and relationships in a major way. Jeff was confined to bed much of the time, and found it very difficult to manage any kind of regular activity outside his home. He was angry and exasperated with the medical profession in their failure to either explain or help him. While we turned the pages Jeff asked questions, and I attempted to answer, explaining what particular phrases meant.

“So ‘at the top of the normal range’ it says there,” he pointed to a particular blood result, “that’s not good then is it, I mean its high isn’t it?”

“Well, it’s still within the limits of what is normal. That’s what’s important. It will also probably vary a bit each time its been checked.” We looked through previous pages and indeed the numbers went up and down. We were both relieved. We carried on much in the same way for about an hour then I noticed Jeff had fallen silent.

“So what do you think?” I asked.

He was looking down at his hands and flexing his fingers as though testing their range of movement. “Well I’ll be honest with you, doc.”

“Go on…”

“All these tests and scans…they’ve never checked my out here have they,” he said pointing to his left flank. “And that’s where the pain is worse at the moment. They’ve never scanned me right here have they?”

At that point I really didn’t know how to reply.

And now I know just how Jeff felt. Before my recent appointment at the kidney unit I was having persistent discomfort in my left flank too. I was constantly checking and prodding and trying to reassure myself, but it was only after the appointment, when I received the results of my latest scan, explained to my in details that I could understand, that I realized that the pains in my flank had actually disappeared completely. I had previously been told that the kidney on that side was enlarged, but this scan showed that wasn’t apparently the case. Only I now have pains elsewhere in my back, and in my joints too. Logically I know that the pains are worse when my mood is low, as I would have predicted; made worse by my level of anxiety. I focus on things I have reason to worry about due to my family history: such as heart disease and arthritis. I do have chronic kidney disease and now associated hypertension, hypothyroidism, irritable bowel syndrome, early signs of cataracts (yes my optician helpfully added that to the list this week) and a long-standing mood disorder. And now I have started to monitor my body just in the way (though not quite as obsessively) as one of my patients who used to chart the progression of unexplained spots across his body in his diary.

Reassurance doesn’t work. I’m worried about my health. The last thing I need to do is to watch or listen to my body. I really need to be distracted from it in a major way. I know that even if I am feeling tired if I don’t get out there and keep getting on with life, setting myself (achievable) goals, life will pass me by while I’m still checking my pulse!

I just have to keep reminding myself just as I used to remind my own patients of that…and keep going.

So that’s the plan then.

‘Misery’, moods and madness

I find I learn what I think about something as I write about it. Composing words on a screen (I stopped writing by hand when I gave up clinical work- I have a writing corn from years of scribbling in notes) helps me to formulate what exactly it is that is troubling me. But for a few weeks I’ve had difficulty writing anything very creative other than a single blog. I’m well aware I’ve been grieving for my beloved cat; I was feeling very sad but I began to feel a little better again. Then I had a visit from a family member, which stirred up unwanted thoughts (and dreams) about the past.  I began to ruminate again about all sorts of other ‘stresses’ in my life although I’m still not sure how really threatening they actually are, and, for a couple of weeks, my mood plummeted downwards.

 

It’s become fashionable in some circles not to use the word ‘depression’ but to refer to ‘misery’ instead. ‘Depression’ is a contested concept and there is a powerful view that it is primarily a state that is socially determined, a natural response to life events that will respond to social and/or psychological intervention without the need for anything more. Particularly medication.

 

While I wholeheartedly agree that the DSM concept of a unitary ‘depression’ is simplistic and that there are, as the founder of the Black Dog Institute in Australia, Gordon Parker, has suggested, many different ‘depressions’, I really must draw the line at the increasing use of the word ‘misery’. To be described as ‘miserable’ not only means being constantly unhappy but also has connotations of wretchedness and being an awful burden to others. ‘Misery’ as an idea I can just about tolerate, but to be described as miserable because you feel down feels like yet another form of stigmatization of the ‘undeserving poor’ who are unable, or cannot be bothered, to help themselves.

 

And the question is should all experiences of depression now be lumped together as a result of social causes? This is as simplistic to me as suggesting its all down to incorrect or ‘faulty’ thinking or something wrong with the level of monoamines in the synapse. All of these are, for me, similarly discredited ideas. Surely our brains (and our experiences) are worthy of more complex theories than these?

 

What I’ve learned is that there are times when something really seems to shift in my mood, as though some unseen worker 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 and I am full of ‘fear’. When I look in the mirror I am quite sure I can see it in my eyes. There are times when my fear can shift into frankly paranoid thoughts and feelings of wanting to end my life. It’s terrifying and yet oddly familiar at the same time. I’ve been there many times, and I’ve just been there, albeit fairly briefly this time, again.

 

I’m fortunate that I haven’t had depression severe enough to warrant admission to hospital but I’ve had several episodes in my life. Why does this happen to me, but not to so many others who seem to be much more resilient? If I’m just ‘miserable’ perhaps it’s because I’m just inherently weak? For me, this is the obvious conclusion I must draw.

 

What I do believe is that ‘depression’ is a complex, multidimensional experience incorporating everything from profound and painful unhappiness to suicidal thoughts and psychotic degrees of despair. As I’ve said before, ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’ are also very closely linked to the degree that I don’t find the idea of diagnostic co-morbidity useful at all.

 

The only way I can explain why only some of us seem to become depressed in response to life events is by drawing on the concept of vulnerability. A combination of genetic factors, early life experiences and unremitting life stresses such as lack of support and long-term physical illness add to our vulnerability. Such that, when a torrent of life events come along, those of us who have the greatest vulnerability and lowest threshold for becoming depressed, will get washed away by the waves while those who are fortunately more resilient seem to remain standing.

 

I don’t find it difficult to identify all of those factors in my own life. I’ve used biological (medication), psychological (therapy) and social (retirement from a stressful job) strategies to overcome them. Most of the time now, it works for me.  But there are still likely to be times when my mood just seems to switch gear again and I begin to see an image of the world distorted through a glass, darkly. I’ve never been clinically high, but when I begin to feel better I do sometimes feel an odd surge of well-being to be back in tune with life again.

Just please don’t call me ‘miserable’.