Recovery during a war on depression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

 

 

Take up thy bed and Work

The first time I heard the term ‘worklessness’ I remember a shiver running down my spine- it was the way in which it was being used to describe an apparent ‘human condition’ in which there was a sense of this being a lifestyle choice. We were told that it meant not simply being ‘unemployed’ but not actively seeking and/or being available for work; but it was not applied to the idle rich or others members of society, myself now included, who have concluded that work is not particularly good for their health but do not need to claim benefits (although my University Pension, funded partly through the state is still a benefit). At a time when the drive towards viewing employment as the desired outcome for people with mental illness was beginning to take precedence over other more used-centred outcomes it was a prescient warning of changes about which we are now only too aware- the move to treat people with physical but also particularly mental health problems as essentially capable of taking up their own beds and walking to the Job Centre, regardless of their condition.

I’m very suspicious of terms that are used by governments to describe those who do not comply with what is expected of them in our societies. As a psychiatrist I have been accused of being an agent of the state on more than one occasion, but the role played by British psychiatrists is a long way from that which was played by Nazi psychiatrists in the Third Reich who colluded in ‘euthanasia’ or by the psychiatrists in the Soviet Union who were willing to label political dissidents with the diagnosis of ‘sluggish schizophrenia’- which resulted in the expulsion of their organization from the World Psychiatric Association. The use of diagnoses to both label and treat dissident citizens continues to this day- for example in the controversial treatment in China of the practitioners of the Falun Gong meditation movement who are deemed to be psychotic and undergo ‘treatment’. We have also recently seen the notorious collusion between psychologists in the USA and torture of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Professionals who were willing to behave unethically in the service of the state for payment.

You may say these are extreme examples, but I think we should be concerned when political and social issues are described in terms which a) infer that the problem lies within the individual rather than society b) dresses this up in pseudo-psychological terminology and c) infers that there is a treatment, psychological and/or physical for this.

The report this week from Birkbeck College highlighted the way in which being unemployed is increasingly described in policy documents as a problem of the individual, who lacks motivation or the ‘right attitude’ to obtain a job. This is deemed to be ‘treatable’, although for a professional to engage in such enforced treatment, without which a person will lose his or her benefits has been described as ‘not only unethical but probably illegal’.

It’s difficult to see how a person with severe mental illness would be capable of acquiring the ‘right attitude’ when they are still struggling with the everyday tasks of life. Yet there are people in our government who clearly think this is possible, which is not only senseless but very, very scary. It reminds me of the attitude of some of the people I worked with over the years, who truly seemed to believe that mental illness is itself a ‘lifestyle choice’, which the person suffering not only had power over, but could choose to change if only they wanted to do so. An attitude which not only lacks basic empathy, but has a seductive simplicity which has emerged recently in the imperative to declare oneself ‘well’ and ‘recovered’, and has been around for many years in some so-called ‘self-help books which tell you that you can ‘climb out of your prison’ without any help in unlocking the door.

It’s a worrying trend in a society, which seems not only to care less than ever for those who have disabilities but to declare that a person has, within him or herself, the power to overcome their problems, if they choose to, and obtain a job with or without the aid of some motivational therapy. And what happens if they don’t take up their beds and work? The Rt Honourable Ian Duncan Smith would seem to believe they must work, because it is in itself a form of treatment. For as it famously said on the gates of Auschwitz, Arbeit macht frei ‘Work Sets You Free.’

Relapse and rewind

It’s fortunate that my other half and I share the same acerbic sense of humour.

‘When you aren’t well you start to talk all the time, and about 80% of it is rubbish, ’ he told me, ‘and you’re doing that now.’

It was at this point that I was finally able to admit that my mood, up and down since last autumn, had taken a major nosedive since New Year. The problem is that when I’m going down, I don’t generally recognise it until quite late, and I’m not always willing to listen to advice to ‘slow down’. This time, along with the usual symptoms of depression I’m so familiar with, I experienced the worst constant physical symptoms of anxiety I have ever felt; resulting in panic when I lost my bearing in Manchester’s Arndale Centre and I couldn’t immediately find the way out. This time, nothing would relieve the anxiety apart from alcohol. What my other half was referring to was the emotional and verbal expression of my anxiety. The constant seeking of reassurance and ruminating out loud about life problems, in a way that probably drives those around me crazy too.

However given my history of recurrent depression, it’s no surprise really that I’ve had another relapse. I had hoped that since retirement I somehow wouldn’t experience the same stresses I used to. And I’d been pretty well for a couple of years at least. But I was wrong. Losing my animal companion and several major family and health stresses I won’t go into here were enough to tip the balance again. It was back.

It’s the beginning of March now. For a while I panicked when I simply switched on the desktop computer. Now I can write again. I burst into tears in the middle of my last blog but I forced myself to get it finished. I have this feeling that if I can’t write then somehow I couldn’t live. Maybe it isn’t right, but I kind of believe that. For the last couple of weeks I’ve gradually been feeling better and the constant anxiety is subsiding to its usual level. I don’t feel like something awful is going to happen imminently and I’ve stopped thinking about death (I was having passive thoughts that life wasn’t worth living again). I heard birdsong the other day as I walked up the garden path and I realised I hadn’t taken any notice of the birds in the garden or their choruses or the bulbs shooting up for…well I’m not sure; because depression creeps up insidiously.

Why is my mood lifting?

Perhaps it just would do anyway. Spring is on the way. I’m bound to feel better…except for me it doesn’t happen that way. Even after the events that precipitate it are all past, my downturn goes on and on, thought not as low or for as long as when I was off medication altogether.

I can only make sense of it as a combination of the following and as you might expect from me, it’s a biopsychsocial combination of remedies:

  • I found a way to talk about my worries and fears about the future with my partner. It wasn’t easy but we managed to resolve some practical things I was concerned about.
  • I was able to utilise some of the practical coping skills for managing my rumination I learned from cognitive therapy and I started to use the guided mindfulness CD I had always been ‘too busy’ to listen to. I tried to stop myself from fighting against my mood, and simply accept that I was feeling terrible: bleak sad and empty. Paradoxically once I do that, I’ve learned, it is always a little easier to move forwards.
  • I forced myself to keep going out even though I wanted to shut myself in the house and never come out again. I’ve met many people in my career who have done just that. I had to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway.’
  • I was able, too with support, to put aside some of the impossible self-imposed deadlines I place on myself. I have to remember that my ‘Rules for Living’ are nigh impossible to live up to. Instead I set myself somewhat simpler goals like going out for a walk, and doing some washing. Small achievements which then helped me to move forwards.
  • I agreed to a change of medication. I wasn’t happy about it. I’m now on multiple tablets for my various conditions, but at the point I was at, it was worth a try. I cannot bear the thought of being sedated by medication and fully understood all my patients who refused to take medication that numbed their thinking. My mind has to be clear but when I’m very low I can’t frame the words and sentences either. I try to get to somewhere in the middle. I just cannot do it without pharmaceutical aid.
  • I sought and accepted the support of friends, real life and on line.

My other half did his part by being there for me, as he always is, even if I am talking rubbish, and arriving home one evening with a present of Lindt chocolate bunnies. Chocolate has antidepressant properties too, I tell myself as I bite the head off one of them. He tells me he knows I am getting better because I’ve started to talk about it all in the past again now. I think I’m getting better too, but I wont really know until I can look back and recognise how much I’ve improved.

That’s the nature of the beast.

Work

I’m going to write about a topic I know nothing about, at least not from the viewpoint of an expert in the published research, but as that doesn’t generally stop many other people I don’t see why it should inhibit me. I have after all worked for most of my life so I’ve plenty of lived experience; and I’ve treated many people who have been struggling to get back into work, or suffering ill-health as a consequence of the toxic environment in which they work. Its eighteen months now since I retired from the University, and a year since I gave up my clinical work and drastically reduced my workload. I’ve been told that work is something that is good for our mental health, so I can only tell you that I feel better physically and mentally overall than I have for several years. People tell me I look younger. I regularly apologise for having thrown in the towel; but it has been something of a fight- to get to the point where I could be done with the job before it did for me.

Please don’t get me wrong, I always enjoyed the interactions with patients and service users, and if I miss anything, it’s the feeling of making a difference in a person’s life; connecting with them and helping them to achieve some change. However I do know that if I had stayed in the NHS rather than being able to move into an academic post quite early in my career I would have been forced into taking even earlier retirement many years ago. I didn’t find the health service to be a sympathetic employer, either in the face of my own episodic periods of depression, which sometimes required time off work, or that of my patients who worked in the system- doctors, nurses and allied professionals. Not only was the macho style of management one of the factors that made it difficult for people to return to work with some degree of flexibility, it was sometimes a key factor in a person becoming depressed or severely anxious in the first place. I personally experienced bullying on more than one occasion, which contributed to several months off work. I know I’m less resilient than I sometimes appear to be.

My patients in the private sector had very mixed experiences. I remember one man who was criticised at work for needing to take breaks to ensure he ate at regular times- he had type 1 diabetes. When he got depressed they sacked him. Another patient with longer-term mental health problems was a poster-girl for a supported back to work scheme. The supermarket who took her on were very keen to be involved, but after a few months, after the support had been withdrawn and a ‘success story’ publicised, expected her to ‘work like everyone else’. Her voices returned as she became increasingly stressed and paranoid. She lost the job. In contrast, a person who worked for a large multinational company was allowed to return to work gradually over an extended period of time, and the occupational health department regularly consulted with all of us to ensure we were all agreed with the plan. They viewed my patient as a valued employee with expertise and experience they did not want to lose. I wish I could say that the NHS generally responded in a similar way. But it didn’t.

So where does this take me? Well, now the end goal of Recovery seems to be to get into paid work. Indeed attendance at Recovery Colleges has been sanctioned in order to apparently assist people with mental health problems to do so. Aside from the fact that, if Recovery were so straightforward all we needed to do was attend a course in it (and I don’t believe it is for many people), I’m very concerned about what we are sending many people back into. Not everyone is an academic who can work flexibly and take time off without risking their employment, I know that. However many more people do jobs from which they gain little sense of self-worth or value beyond simply earning a living. I’m a working-class girl. My parents both clocked in at 7.30 every morning and neither of them would have described their jobs as particularly fulfilling. What they did get was company, an opportunity to use some of their skills at least and a pay-packet. As a student I worked on supermarket checkouts, served in a bar and waited on tables for employers who varied considerably in their attitudes to ill-health. I wouldn’t have coped with those jobs at all if I had been depressed- nor would I have been in any great hurry to return. I personally know people who would never be able to cope with the stresses of regular employment again, yet they are repeatedly reassessed with the constant threat of losing their benefits. This just acts as a further stressor- we all know its cruel and has led to suicide.

So I have doubts about paid employment being the right goal for everyone. Surely it isn’t just about ‘work’ but how we spend our day? Yes, I know we have to bring in an income, but I’ve personally met very few people who really didn’t want to work. What they wanted was a supportive plan to help them move towards employment. A plan which might also involve volunteering and further study or training to gradually help them rediscover a sense of who they were, where they were going, and what goals they could realistically achieve. Not a simple ‘course’ but a journey, which might end in a regular job, but might not if that wasn’t right or possible. A much more humane solution than we are presented with now.

So don’t tell me that work is always good for me, because I know it isn’t. If it was, I wouldn’t be sitting here, feeling quite relaxed, writing this blog. I’d be on call. Or writing another grant proposal.

Whew!