Harold Wilson’s famous phrase about seven days being an eternity in the world of Westminster was cruelty paraphrased years later by the writer Neil Shand in reference to John (Selwyn) Gummer, when he said: “the weak are a long time in politics”. There can be little no doubt that this has been a very, very long week for me and one in which I have become frustrated with myself and tried – several times – to dig deep for the strength I needed to get through.
In doing that I broke one of my golden rules and equated my difficulties as a battle between strength and weakness, when in fact the true strength is in admitting you are struggling and saying it’s ok to not be ok. That is just as well. This last seven, no ten, days have been amongst the toughest I have faced for some time. But thankfully the true test of strength isn’t about never falling, it’s about getting up again.
It is not unusual – as my Welsh singing namesake once said – to struggle at the moment. After all, governments, health systems, organisations and individuals the world over are struggling to tackle the catastrophic coronavirus crisis. As people, families, communities and workplaces, we are often struggling to adjust to the new normal that we are facing; new ways of working; schooling; shopping; keeping in touch with each other; passing the time; filling our weekends, and dealing with the dispiriting daily dose of death, disease and despair. On top of that, I am struggling with my mental health. At times, really struggling.
For context – thanks again, Tom – that’s not unusual. I have realised over the last ten days that for me to get through each day in “normal times” and to thrive, which I do regularly – don’t fret, this post is not all bad news – I have to expend a huge amount of effort and energy. Sadly, being well; being calm; being present; being the best version of me; being content, settled and confident, does not come naturally any more. It has not for a long time. In truth, probably not ever.
I have to work at it. I have to be watchful for the signs and the triggers that can push me into darkness; sadness; fear; worry; and that version of me that I don’t really like. He was around for parts of this week; my impatient, tense, edgy, snappy alter ego.
Why does this happen and why did it happen this week?
Like so many depressive episodes I’ve had, there isn’t one big trigger or cause. It is mostly a build-up of a number of things – often in themselves very small – that come together to create the perfect breeding ground for negativity, worries and down and low feelings to fester and grow. Often – and in this case too – tiredness is central. Bad sleep, not enough sleep and/or bad dreams leave me starting the day under-powered and I can find it hard to recover. This last week or so my hay fever has been ever-present, none more so than when trying to get to sleep or when waking around 4am; eyes stuck closed; nose stuffed to the gills.
Other things that don’t help me keep the episodes at bay have been around this last week or ten days too, especially a lack of routine. I know that millions are in the same boat, but the whole homeschooling whilst working full-time at home gig is proving more than a little unsettling and stressful. I feel the pressure of my work – despite wonderful colleagues – and the pressure of my own expectations of how I should support my daughter with her education – alongside the extra pressure of her school, with good intentions, asking us to do more and more. Something had to give over the last few days and it was me. I have found normally manageable situations tense or worse; punchy emails from people really unsettling and molehills of mild frustration at home and at work (at home) have become mountains. It’s been tough.
Tough to keep perspective. Tough to catch myself from getting upset or worked up before it has gone too far to stop. Tough to meet my own high expectations of myself as colleague, dad and husband. Tough to enjoy some quiet time as I’ve felt like there is always something else that needs doing. Tough to stay in the present. Tough to stay calm. Tough to unwind. Tough to cut myself some slack. Tough to be kind to myself. Tough to be me. I have been tough to live with too. Too tough. Sorry (again!) Dr J, who is herself dealing with many of the same pressures and working longer hours and under more pressure than me.
These moment pass – helped by having my wonderful wife and darling daughter on hand to remind me of what is important in life – certainly not that shirty email from an academic colleague. But these moments are draining. Tiring. Energy and confidence-sapping. They add to a sense of having to work that extra bit harder to stay on top of myself and my game. My usual effort and work levels to stay well have increased 20% or 30% in the last few weeks, in no some part down to the extra strains and stresses of the current crisis and the knock-on effect it is having on normal life. But – and here is the rub – this crisis isn’t going anywhere, not for a long time, and I don’t want to have week after week of this. So, I have to take some action.
I have prescribed the following: more rest and sleep; more me-time (that is hard with work, schooling, all day childcare and everything else but it must be found); so this means, at the very least, earlier starts to have the first 45 minutes of the day (from 6am) for me and the quietness of the early morning before our bundle of energy awakes and the day begins in earnest; importantly more understanding and patience with myself, accepting that it is ok to struggle at this moment, despite being at home (which I love) and having everything we need on hand – as well as everyone close to me (touch wood) being well and free of this vile virus. More kindness to myself; lower expectations; more celebration in the small successes and not in the smaller failures.
This is on top of all my usual interventions and approaches which rely on lots of time with my girls (our daily walks are helpling this – hence the picture of the wonderful Royal Birkdale taken yesterday); lots of exercise (within the stipulated rules!); lots of music (especially Bach); lots of reading for pleasure (I am a new-ish subscriber to The Atlantic: where have you been all my life?!), including my daily dose of poetry; lots of interaction with those who bring me joy, smiles and love and lots of wide berths for those who do not; lots of time on the things I love (harder when there are no LFC, Bost Red Sox, golf or horse racing to spend disproportionate amounts of emotional energy on); and lots of cooking and cups of tea.
I am continuing to tread this road – sometimes a very lonely road despite all the love and support that I have – without my little white tablet; something I remain committed to despite these recent trials. The fact that I can now cry whenever I see Jurgen Klopp’s face on Twitter is one of the reasons why coming off the tablets has been good for me; I have reconnected with my rawest emotions, even if that means I have to blame my hay fever more than is credible when on social media.
I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the challenges of the last week or so and on the reasons for my struggles. Yes, COVID-19 has played a part, as have all the unsettling things I’ve mentioned above. But, in the final analysis, the truth is that I suffer from depression. I am a depressive. I get depressed. And every week – every single week – is a long time for me.