A few Fridays ago, I took my first anti-depressant, just half the dose my doctor had prescribed. On the Saturday, I took the remainder of the scored pill I’d sliced in half the day before. Then on the Sunday, I popped the foil packet in my handbag and went about my day, unsure whether to take the next tablet, uncertain about continuing down the medication route. By the end of Sunday, I’d decided anti-depressants weren’t for me, at least not right now, and that I wanted to find a different way to lift my very low mood and stem the flood of tears.
I didn’t stop because of the side effects, which were mild and may have been partly psychological at that stage – a fuzzy head, a dry mouth, a sleepless night. And nor was it simply down to fear, although there was a fair amount of that (what will the side-effects be? Will the drugs affect me long-term? Will I be able to come off?).
It was more a really deep sense that for me, there’s a different path; an understanding that I know, without a shadow of a doubt, how to raise my spirits, keep myself happy and be loving to myself – it’s just I’m not very good at doing it. It was a case of, ‘I’ve got myself into this mess and I can get myself out of it.’
I completely understand the argument for anti-depressants, respect anyone who decides to take them and know they’ve helped a lot of people, including many of my friends. Some people aren’t in a place to get themselves out of it – their depression is clinical or they’ve totally run out of juice, fallen into a very dark hole and there’s no other way out.
But I’m pretty sure a lot of my problems are of my own making and come down to unkind choices I make. So I’d like to try and make different choices before taking medication. The pills may make it easier to do that, but I’m determined to give it another go myself first.
First, though, how did I end up here? My previous two blog posts (I’m a survivor and When everything feels wrong) tell the story, or at least half of it. The injured wrist, not being able to cycle, scooter, swim or run (dodgy ankle too), relationship ups and downs, worry about this age and stage of life (kids, no kids, too late, do I really want them anyway?), being glued to the news for the previous month for one of the jobs I do (seems I wasn’t the only one who got depressed by the steady onslaught of upsetting stories, as this Guardian piece explains). All that got me down.
And then there’s the bigger picture. I’ve had years of emotional ups and downs and have contemplated taking anti-depressants before (as I wrote in September 2012 in this post: Be still my beating heart). I’ve also been on a recovery path for more than a decade – from an eating disorder and other addictive behaviours – and it’s been tough at times to keep my spirits up, without resorting to the crutches I used in the past, particularly when life has thrown a curve ball (my dad’s death, work stress, health issues and so forth).
But this particular dip, I like to think and hope, is situational. And my mood is closely connected to the way I’ve handled the situation. I injured my wrist and then made it worse because I wasn’t willing to stop. I didn’t rest it or take time off work, beyond a day or afternoon here and there. I didn’t focus on getting better or put everything else to one side. I ploughed on, typing when it hurt, doing work I don’t like and not being nice to myself.
So I’ve decided to give myself a month of extreme self-care (without beating myself up for not doing it perfectly) and at the end of that month, I’ll see where I’m at.
This isn’t going to be easy. My natural instinct is to push on through, ignore the pain or discomfort and wipe away the tears when they come. But this time, I’m going to take the pain and the tears as I sign I need to do something radically different – and then I’m going to try to follow through.
So what does radical self-care look like for me? Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
- Gentle Pilates – it’s great to get into my body and out of my head, to focus in on one particular muscle and just work on that.
- Small chunks of work, but not too much. Stopping when my hand hurts or when my mood starts to dip. Of course, the voices come in and question my level of success. ‘You’ll never get anything done if you only work three or four hours or less. You’ll be broke. You’ll never achieve your dreams. All your gifts will go to waste.’ But, for the time being, I’m choosing to trust that if I can keep myself well and happy and if I can allow myself to work at my own pace, everything else will follow.
Lots of nature, including spontaneous trips. On Friday of last week, after a work meeting got cancelled at the last minute, I decided to take myself off to the beach. It was already quite late in the morning and my head told me not to bother, to go to Hampstead Heath instead. But I took note of how my heart skipped with delight at the thought of walking on the sand, lying in the sun and swimming in the sea so I headed down to St Pancras and took a train to Camber Sands. Of course, the all-too-logical side of my brain kept telling me it was foolish, even when I was en route. I’d had to take a train, Tube, two trains and then a taxi because I’d just missed the bus. How ridiculous. But my heart – that childlike glee I experienced in my kitchen at the thought of the trip – won out and those hours I spent lying in the sand dunes, walking on the beach and floating on my back in the sea really turned things around. I felt myself again, happy, confident, hopeful, trusting. And immensely capable of making amazing decisions.
- More nature. Since my flirtation with the anti-depressants, I’ve swum twice in the freezing cold waters of the Kenwood Ladies Pond, which always does wonders for my soul. Again, I’ve had to push myself, just nudge myself over that hurdle in my head. ‘It’s too far, too cold, too late, my wrist will hurt, what’s the point?’ I’ve got there and I’ve gone in and my body and heart have thanked me for it.
- Even more nature. I’m off to the sea again this weekend and will be packing my swimming stuff and hiking boots. And I’ll be having a serious think about whether it’s time, finally, to follow through on what I wrote on this blog a year ago (Ode to London) and move out of the city to live by the beach. I still love London but it’s been particularly challenging living here without being able to use my bike or scooter (because of my wrist). I’ve taken crowded buses and trains and spent too long underground. This city is big and noisy and can be overwhelming when you’re not feeling great.
- Connection and kindness to others. Last week, I was sat sobbing on a log on Hampstead Heath after a pond swim (yes, the water helped but my low mood hijacked me again afterwards). I was still feeling the effects of the two pills, wondering if I should have carried on and trying to figure out how to get myself out of this tearful rut. Then, a stranger stopped to ask me if I was OK and hung about to listen to my woes. That connection – her kindness – turned the day around. In fact, I think it turned everything around. So how can I connect with others? How can I be kind? How can I use my experience to help others? I know this is one of the keys to staying emotionally well and leading a fulfilled and happy life.
- Making a choice and sticking to it. Ambivalence is one of the things that affects my mood. The constant questioning and self-doubt is exhausting. The internal push-pull gets me down and drives me mad. So I’m going to commit to things for a period and give them a shot and every time I question my choices, I’m going to remind myself this is the choice I’ve made (or ask my friends or blog readers to remind me). I can review the choice at a set point in the future – until then, I’m staying put. So I’m off the medication and experimenting with extreme self-care for a month (although I imagine I won’t go back to the drugs). I’m going to try and engineer a move to the coast for six months or a year, knowing there’ll be fears and reservations but I’ll never know unless I try. And I’m going to commit to developing a relationship with someone (yes, a man) and seeing where that goes, knowing my ambivalence is deeply ingrained and always ready to trip me up, but I deserve to make a decision and give it a shot.
In the meantime, every day, I’m going to ask: what can I do today to be kind to myself? How can I love myself today? How can I lift my spirits? How can I put myself first? Today, that was a walk in the park, meditation, physio and writing this blog … so far. I know not everyone has the luxury of this choice – they have children to run around after or jobs to show up at. But I do have the choice so I’m going to make the most of it.
Taking those two pills has been a wake-up call and, in many ways, I’m thankful I tried them because every day my conviction that I want to manage without grows stronger. Yes, I may be addicted to the struggle – I’ve always preferred walking uphill to down – but I can’t change my personality or go against myself. It’s not an easy path but the alternative, to me, is much more unpleasant so I have to commit to protecting and loving myself in a way that’s radical.
Of course, it’s amusing I’d want to choose a path of extreme self-care rather than just standard, normal, run-of-the-mill self-care. I’m always happier at the extremes. It suits my personality. But it feels like it needs to be extreme because the part of me that wants to drag me down or make unkind choices is very fierce.
And I’m not the only one to realise that some of us are in a fight for our lives, or at least for our mental and emotional health. Try out Cheryl Richardson’s The Art of Extreme Self-Care if you think you need a helping hand. I was listening to the audio book on the way to this beach ….