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.

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.

Strategies for Living

In the last few weeks, while I’ve been largely alone in Orkney, I’ve been aware of having to cope with my mood and thoughts from day to day and reading about how people with mental health problems cope on Twitter and support each other.

I’ve also been reminded of something I read many years ago.

At the turn of the millennium, the Mental Health Foundation carried out some service user research and produced a report called ‘Strategies for Living.’ Over 400 people had completed Knowing our own Minds – a user-led survey of alternative and complementary treatments and therapies in mental health and Strategies for Living reported the findings from interviewing 71 people with experience of mental health problems in depth. This was a really positive piece of work, which highlighted the particular activities and experiences which people with mental health problems found helpful in coping with their everyday lives: from on-going survival strategies, such as the need for financial security to crisis strategies such as making contact with friends or professionals, ways of controlling symptoms such as taking medication, having therapy, taking exercise or using a Walkman (yes it is a few years old) to distract from hearing voices, to ‘healing strategies’ through religion and spiritual beliefs to complementary therapies.

Relationships with others were key. Several common themes could be identified:

• Acceptance
• Shared experience… shared identity
• Emotional support… ‘being there’
• A reason for living
• Finding meaning… and purpose
• Peace of mind… and relaxation
• Taking control… having choices
• Security… and safety
• Pleasure

Mental health services were largely absent from the accounts that people offered although some individual professionals clearly offered a great deal of valued support

Why am I reminded of this now?

How we cope from day to day is a very personal phenomenon. There are of course some common strategies that people find helpful and these were the ones reported in Strategies for Living.

However there are also some other ways of coping that were not reported in here. The strategies that people do not always want to admit to. I know some of these intimately. Despite growing up in a household of heavy smokers, I’ve never tried a cigarette, but I watched my father consume 40 a day as his own personal way of keeping life at bay. Excessive drinking is something I’ve always suspected I could sink into and I’ve consciously tried to cut down in recent months. It isn’t always easy. I spent some of my career working in alcohol services and I know how hard it can be to withdraw from alcohol and other substances. But there are other ways too that we cope with how we feel: eating, or not, over exercising, self-harm and self-injury , spending every night out on the town or shutting ourselves away completely from the world to the point that we feel completely isolated and ultimately brooding about strategies for dying rather than living. Suicidal thoughts are themselves a coping strategy. Knowing there is a way out when it all gets just too much.

My concern with much of the self-help literature, some of which sits on my own bookshelf unopened, is that it makes various assumptions:

  • We actually want to change, and stop using the sometimes self-destructive ways of coping we find helpful in day to day survival.
  • We can find the resources to be able to do that.
  • We have the material resources and social capital to be able to adopt some of the positive strategies people suggest to us, such as time, money and a place to live to start off with.

Its difficult to adopt new ways of coping until you have acknowledged what you will lose in giving up the other strategies, the ones health professionals would prefer you to unquestionably ditch. Such positive ways of coping cannot be prescribed (such as in the advice to ‘go home and have a warm bath and a cup of tea’ that currently seems beloved of some crisis support teams- actually I didn’t  see these even mentioned in Strategies for Living either). Health professionals need to start from where we are at now. What have we found helpful in the past? What do we do now to cope? What is difficult about changing ? And avoid being judgmental if they want us to be honest.

The problem with feeling depressed is that it involves rumination. Indeed in some cultures it is considered to be a problem of ‘thinking too much’. We become aware of our thoughts, and struggle to cope with them minute by minute. I certainly have some obsessional features to my thinking, and I’m aware that if the day doesn’t go ‘right’ in some often hard to clarify way, I can feel as though everything has gone ‘very wrong’. I have to mentally restart the day in some way. These thoughts can be painful and repetitive and I seek ways to avoid them. Distraction is probably the most effective way I’ve found and I deeply resent that some psychologists I’ve met seek to denigrate such an effective coping strategy as a ‘safety behaviour’ in CBT speak. Hell- give me a break- it’s what I find helpful!

There are many different strategies for living and quite a few for dying.
Help me to find the ones that fit me best to help me survive.
Don’t advise, lecture or proselytize.