In support of Mind

Not only haven’t I published anything in this blog for months, I also haven’t really written anything for months. I know I owe no explanations to anyone but the fact of the matter is that I do suffer with depression, and whenever something in my life changes it takes me quite a while to stop feeling overwhelmed. Doesn’t matter if I perceive the change as positive or negative – the mere reality of it creates confusion, and to some extent, stress. So what’s changed? Well, I got a job in late Spring, simple as that. It’s not a dream job but it’s taking up some of my time. Hence why I haven’t been able to write. I am constantly trying to get back to it though.

The reason I’m writing today is that in a week’s time I’ll be running my second half-marathon. My first one took place in May, and that one I ran by myself, for myself. This one, The Royal Parks Half-Marathon, I’m doing for charity. As alluded to in the title, the charity of my choice is Mind, a mental health organisation here in the UK. There were lots of other great causes to choose from but I find that mental health is one that really demands more awareness. I can’t think of many physical illnesses that would come with a social stigma comparable to mental health issues.

And stigma isn’t the only problem with getting help for mental illness. Oftentimes we downplay signs of depression in our own lives because the symptoms don’t seem serious enough to validate asking for help. Yes, suicidal ideation, drug abuse and self-harm are very clear red flags, but it doesn’t have to get that bad before you deserve help.

Here are five lesser-known signs of depression. Remember that each of them is a normal human experience every now and then; it is only when they come bundled-up over an extended period of time and have a noticeable effect on your ability to live life that you might have a reason to get worried.

1. Irritability
Personally, this is a big one. I have always been somewhat hot-tempered and especially as an adolescent I was often moody to an extreme. With age I’ve gained more patience, and at least I’m not as explosive.
When depression gets the hold of me, other people become hugely irritating in my mind. Your choice of words, tone of voice, the speed at which you respond to my messages, etc. can all set me off without a warning. I get snappy, rude and cold – and the worst of it is that I’m often completely oblivious of having offended you, and if I do apologise, it tends to take a while to occur.

It isn’t only interactions with other people that can push me over the edge; I easily get annoyed at my tech not working, or when the bus is late, or when things don’t go exactly as I wanted them to go. The irritation is so strong that I can feel it as physical tension all over my body, and it often boils over in angry tears.

Irritation is a normal feeling, but when it becomes your reaction to everything and everyone, there is probably something else than the universe having turned against you, going on.

2. Short attention span
This one is also right up there in my personal hall of fame. As a uni student I literally had to start tricking myself into reading and writing. I would take books to the gym with me and read them on an exercise bike for example. If I tried to read at home I would either get distracted or fall asleep. Even interesting lectures wouldn’t keep my attention for long unless I was either doodling in a notebook or playing Solitaire on my phone.

In general, it can be difficult to take on any task if you are suffering from depression. You might be motivated and have a footlong  list of things to do, but concentrating your mind on any one of them seems impossible. To an extent, being distracted and procrastinating are normal human qualities as our minds naturally wander. But extreme distractibility can be a sign of an underlying issue.

3. Difficulty making decisions
Big decisions can keep any of us up at night, but when you become paralysed when faced with everyday choices it is time to stop. Sometimes, when I’m asked whether I want to do a or b, my mind simply goes blank and I cannot summon the power to choose. Not to mention when I’m presented with an open-ended question where I don’t even have the luxury of picking a ready-made answer.

This flavour of indecisiveness is not the same as looking at a particularly mouth-watering restaurant menu, unable to make up your mind on what delicacy to order. Depression seriously makes you doubt that you are even capable of making a decision, any decision. It leaves you feeling like you’re just floating with nothing solid to hold on to, in the fear of choosing incorrectly – even when the choice is between a white shirt and a black one.

4. Excessive fatigue
It is a true challenge to get enough sleep in the hectic modern world where most of us are completely consumed with work. So naturally many suffer from persistent lack of quality sleep. But what if you still feel exhausted after getting a solid eight hours a night? Depression doesn’t necessarily make you feel sad or hopeless; it can simply suck every bit of energy out of you leaving your mind foggy and body heavy with sleepiness. Every time you sit down to read you find yourself drifting off to sleep, and no matter how many cups of coffee you ingest the drowsiness persist.

Sometimes sleepiness can merely follow from unwholesome habits such as a poor diet and physical inactivity. But if you’re otherwise taking care of yourself by eating the greens and moving around, extreme fatigue can be indicative of depression – or some other chronic illness.

5. Physical aches and pains
Personally, I haven’t really encountered this one but I have known quite a few people with daily headaches that just resist treatment. Like tiredness, aches and pains can arise from a multitude of conditions but when you’ve ruled out the most obvious causes, it might worth looking into your mental state.

Mind and body are not separate entities and so we shouldn’t overlook the interconnectedness of our mental and physical states. And it surely is time to erase the idea of mental phenomena being somehow less than real and painful. The stigma around mental illness arises from the perception that because it is in the mind, it doesn’t really exist in the same way as physical illness does. Of course, this is an ancient myth, and in reality the chemical imbalance in the brain is just as measurable as the depth of a wound.

I could ramble on and on, but I’m aware that most readers have already given up. If you made it this far, please consider taking a detour to my fundraising page and making a donation. I’m not asking for a substantial sum – £5 would be fantastic!

NHS Mental Health info


An unlikely pair

unlikely pair
I happened to exchange emails with a dear friend of mine about our shared struggles in life a few days ago, and then found out through this poignant Guardian article that it is currently Depression Awareness Week. In the spirit of spreading awareness I thought I’d share my thoughts on two books that have given me surprising comfort in tough times. By the way I really do read authors that are not Patrick Rothfuss or Richard Dawkins. And one day I shall prove this – just not today.

I’m not into the self-help and spiritual literary genres at all. The brief encounters I’ve had with these kinds of books have always left a sickly taste of phoney sweetness and disingenuity in my mouth. In addition, being bombarded with popular self-help jargons like “you can be whatever you want”, “you can’t live a positive life with a negative mind” and “just be your authentic self” only enforces the deep shame of having a mental illness and not being able to cure oneself of it. Undoubtedly there are those who do find the delirious hype of self-help and New-Age literature motivating and eye-opening but for a sceptic, which I definitely class myself as, it rings hopelessly hollow.

Richard Dawkins: The Magic of Reality, 2011
This is a very different book compared to its most well-known predecessors, The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, both of which are enveloped in their fair share of controversy. With The Magic of Reality Dawkins set out to write for younger readers, combining his exceptional skills in storytelling and engaging science communication. In spite of its target audience this is a book for anyone to enjoy. The language is by no means over-simplified or condescending, and you can always skim over the paragraphs that focus on explaining some really basic scientific concepts that you might already be familiar with. It’s a light read, and a very delightful one because Dawkins brilliantly succeeds in conveying his childlike admiration of the natural world in a way that stirs the same curiousness in the attentive reader.

Patrick Rothfuss: The Slow Regard of Silent Things, 2014
I have expressed my adoration of Patrick Rothfuss’ work in a previous post where I discussed the feminist themes in his to-be-trilogy, Kingkiller Chronicles. The Slow Regard of Silent Things is sort of a spin-off  as it focuses on one of the secondary characters in the main series. It stands on its own though: the references to the trilogy don’t disrupt the flow even if you don’t catch them, mainly because the protagonist, Auri makes references to a lot of things that remain elusive to the reader anyway. It’s actually quite difficult to pin down this book. The best way that I can think to describe it is a literary portrait – through sharing Auri’s daily routines, thoughts and emotions Rothfuss paints a picture of a sensitive, deeply affected and troubled girl who has escaped daylight to the shadow world underground and become something other to a regular world dweller.

At a first glance there doesn’t seem to be much that a science book for youngsters and a dreamlike novel could have in common but rest assured, for me it’s all in the details.
In The Slow Regard… we come to notice that Auri’s life is dictated by a set of rules and rituals, completely unintuitive to the reader. She seems to be functioning under a constant of anxiety that flares up and escalates into a rush of panic as soon as something disturbs her safety-net of routines. Any mishap or disappointment will drive her into a deep depression. Mental illness isn’t pretty, and being able to write a piece about it that is both beautiful and heart-wrenchingly relatable makes Patrick Rothfuss practically a genius in my eyes; romanticising this topic is such a tired and disrespectful trope.
Auri finds joy and purpose in the smallest of things – collecting objects that don’t hold any value to anyone but her, and embracing such mundane experiences as brushing her hair. She is mesmerised by sights, sounds and smells, and being hidden away from the busy and loud world above the ground she spends her time noticing a lot more than any of us in our daily lives.

The Magic of Reality is compiled of a series of chapters each tackling a natural phenomenon through myths and stories, leading up to the scientific account. What are rainbows and earthquakes, and who was the first human are some of the questions that Dawkins takes on and explains. One might expect the mythologies related to each problem to be most entertaining part of this book, triumphing over the dry logic of science; but on the contrary. Scientists who have the rare gift of communication are so incredibly inspirational and compelling when explaining the mysteries of nature that they easily make fairy stories sound unimaginative, and Richard Dawkins is no exception. I always loved biology in school because I was blessed with multiple amazing teachers, but I have never been as impressed by evolution as I am when I witness Dawkins addressing it. He is so invested in science and reason without any hidden agenda that it’s hard not to absorb some of the excitation. The Magic of Reality is all about stopping to study things that we take for granted and finding out how they actually come about. It simultaneously encourages the reader to be an independent and critical thinker while also appreciating the small, seemingly inconsequential things.

The unlikely pairing of these two books is a perfect remainder for a conflicted mind to look for moments of peace and wonder in the details of life. Small revelations of everyday don’t have to be tied to some New-Age guru’s 30-day soul healing detox programme but are best experienced with a clear and rationally tuned mind. Negative thoughts and emotions are not poison, nor can we have any control over their emergence. What we can control are the things that we choose to linger on – and should those things be tangible and firmly rooted in reality, all the better I say. “You can’t think your way out of a thinking problem”, is one of the best lessons that I have learned, which is why I try to embrace as many things that exist outside of my thoughts, as I can. The fact that we see stars in our night sky, and that the very existence of those stars is what allows us to exists too, is one of those things.