I am 42 tomorrow; 42 days after the UK was put into lockdown by the Government. I’m sure you’d agreed that nothing says birthday celebration more than a one hour, state-authorised walk and then spending the remaining 23 hours of the day inside your house, trying to work full-time, look after your six year old daughter, whilst teaching her to read, write and count. Happy birthday!
As many of us have been repeating each day like a mythical mantra; ‘it is what it is’ and we need to just ‘get on with it’. There is no doubt it could be a lot worse for me and mine. We are all COVID-free (as far as we know) and despite one or two family and friends having a brush with the cruel corona killer, all have recovered and we have avoided the worse the virus has handed out. By that important measure, we’ve had a good lockdown so far. All are present and correct. All of us remain pretty well, if a little fed-up and gripped by occasional waves of cabin fever.
The lockdown has also handed us a mirror to reflect on so many areas of our lives; perhaps many things that we took for granted. It has provided us here with an insight – a slightly unhappy insight – into Miss J’s experience at school which has prompted us to make a change. A welcome and necessary change but one that this time at home has facilitated.
The lockdown has provided me with further evidence – if I needed it – that there are many, many worse things in life than being imprisoned in our house with my two favourite people in the world. I feel so lucky – so blessed – that my idea of pure happiness in normal times, is to be at home with Dr and Miss J. So this is more than grand. The lockdown has been a reminder of my supreme good fortune and has also reminded me that others are not so lucky. The rise in child abuse, domestic violence and the inevitable up tick in post-lockdown divorces, serves to remind me how much fortune I have in the bank and how grotesque is the hand dealt to others.
As I have written on these pages previously, my lockdown has not been without its challenges. Anyone with mental health conditions will know that the pressures of lockdown and the inability or limitations to call upon your usual handling and managing techniques has been tricky. At times, terrible. I have also be struck with an annoying and painful infection in my elbow which I am currently treating with antibiotics and it (the infection) is treating me to period of great tiredness, pain and weakness. As I have been saying to Dr J – quoting the great Jim Royle when he was truck down with a nasty bout of heart burn – “I’m as weak as a kitten (Barb)”.
So back to my birthday. I am not someone who cares for birthdays and certainly not one as insignificant as number forty-two. Two years ago I did originally organise a party for my 40th only to realise as the day approached, like a destructive out of control express train, that the stress and anxiety of a party was the last thing my fairly fragile mental health needed. We cancelled and I heaved a huge sigh of relief. This was just before I became fully teatotal – that will be two years at the start of September – another change I have made to help me manage my depression and wellbeing. I don’t care about birthdays but I do care about milestones and making progress to achieve goals. As we hit the 42-day mark for the lockdown, I am also passing an important milestone point – the 52-day mark since giving up anti-depressants.
I am passionate about the importance of openness in the struggle against mental health challenges. I have tried to talk about my experiences as clearly and as directly as possible – avoiding euphemisms – trying to call it as it is. This makes for candour but also some discomfort, especially amongst those who feel that you are making fuss, washing dirty linen in public or drawing attention to yourself. Take a look at 99% of the social media comments that mental health campaigners/ambassadors get and it is wonderfully positive and supportive – often grateful for breaking down a taboo or reducing a stigma. There is always a small percentage – probably even less than 1% – which is negative, nasty and knocking. We all know that the 1% doesn’t matter and should be ignored but life is not that simple.
I am lucky to receive so much positivity in person and through social media, emails and messages whenever I blog, tweet or speak about mental health. But the one topic that gives me the most satisfaction is the response I get when I address the experience of anti-depressants. This is still the dirty secret of mental health – and too often is the taboo that has not been smashed.
As I have written before, I spent over 15 months taking a daily anti-depressant after eventually feeling like I needed extra help – another tool in my toolkit. My experience on anti-depressants was very positive and something I am more than glad that I did. The extra help really helped me. It gave me a sense of comfort; a feeling of being settled; a bubble or an body armour around me that felt like it shielded me from some of the day to day noise, doubts and challenges that my depression brought. I was less tetchy; more relaxed; calmer; harder to rattle/upset and definitely easier to be around. It did not – nor did I ever expect it to – stop the episodes of depression and I am not sure it reduced either their frequency or their duration – two things I was hoping for. But, it helped me go about my daily business. It was a source of support.
When I decided to come off them earlier this year, I was nervous. The online world is full of bad news and horror stories on this subject and that did put me off for a month or two. But I was determined to try life without them. Partly because – despite their obvious help – they hadn’t achieved their main goal for me and because I really missed the good bits of me that they suppressed. As well as smoothing out the downward daily bumps and anxieties, they took away those delicious moments of raw joy and emotion. I hadn’t cried in all the time I had taken them – whereas previous I blubbed at the drop of a hat; the singing of YNWA or that moment in The West Wing when Leo says to Josh; “as long as I have a job here, you have a job here.”
The first four weeks were a bit messy; headaches; dizziness; nausea; wind (lovely!); some really extreme emotional reactions to stuff (including the early return of tears) and a general feeling of imbalance. But this all passed. Now I feel good. Feel fully like me. The good, the bad and the ugly. I have – I hope – learnt a lot during the last fifteen months to supplement all that I have learnt about myself, my brain and how I am wired since my breakdown (2014/15). I feel like a much better version of myself – not because I have changed my personality but because I now know mostly how to manage my way through life to refresh and replenish myself; to avoid the things that take me down; and the things that help me to side step the depressive landmines that wait around every corner.
This is not a fairytale; I still have bad days; really bad days; and the episodes remain a big part of my life; I cannot avoid all the things that bring me down (including tricky periods at work – it is a job not volunteering); sometimes I miss the warning signs until it is too late or not at all; or I just don’t sleep well enough and that leaves me under-powered to handle something that gets thrown at me. But I have learnt and am still learning.
I often get asked what is the biggest difference now that I am off the tablets. What has changed? How does it feel? The answer is that there isn’t one big things but there is some small stuff:
- I cry more
- I am a bit easier to annoy
- I am a bit more often a little annoying
- I sleep better
- I had less vivid dreams – and, so far, fewer nightmares
- I go to the toilet a little less
- I am less hungry/eat less
- I can hear music better – it is less muffled – purer to my ear
- I am a little less settled and more prone to feel it if something goes wrong
- I get angrier/rattled by stuff that frustrates me – mostly at the radio and TV and very often involving the rubbish talked about sport and/or politics!
- I appear to get a little more tired
- I find myself wanting to send that quick, snappy email in response to an irritating incoming email
Overall, I still feel like me. Perhaps a slightly better – more honest/true – version of me but still me. A version of me that feels all the ups and downs – all the potholes in the road. A version of me that feels those rawer emotions – I am swearing more again and definitely getting more upset or animated by the things I see in the world – and there is plenty of sadness but also inspiration to choose from currently. A version of me that feels like the fifteen months of medication helped and gave me some space to work on myself and my capacity to be patient and to unwind. A version of me that is proud to have come to this point but a version of me that knows how hard I have to work every day to stay well – to keep the water below my head.
And as of tomorrow, a version of me that is a little older.