Dear You

The Recovery Letters is a blog which publishes letters addressed to those suffering with depression, written by people who are recovering. They kindly approached me to write one for them. I hope you like it.
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Dear You

Did you know that there are flowers which bloom only in the darkness? Even on the blackest night, Moonflowers blossom, their beauty shining through.

Depression can make you forget everything you know and rob you of rational thought. It sucks the colour out of life and makes you feel like the world is spinning without you, like you’re absent. Like you don’t belong in any conversation. Like it wouldn’t matter if you weren’t present in the room, the town, the world.

The strength of depression lies in its ability to negate positivity. No matter how sincere the compliments others may pay you, you can’t believe them. You can’t accept that you’re worthy of love, acceptance or even happiness.

But you are. You really, really are. You can’t see it at the moment, because you’ve got a rain cloud over you. There’s a deluge of icy rain blurring your vision and a fog in your mind, obscuring your thoughts. But underneath it, the truth is you’re still there. You’re here and you matter. You’re kind, beautiful, loved. You’re important to so many people and you deserve to get better.

I know you don’t believe me. I wouldn’t have believed these words either. I’d have discounted them, ruled out any positive words. Put myself down.

I spent long, dark, anxious nights awake. My mind raced and I felt like the only person awake in the world. As if the night would never end. Panicking and palpitating and crying.

But little did I know then, that even during darkness, flowers still bloom. And one day, without you even realising, you start to notice them again. It starts with a strange feeling one morning. You think of something you’ve got planned for later on that day, and an odd feeling comes over you. It takes a while to recognise it at first. Is is anxiety? No. It’s called positivity. You’re looking forward to things again. Fancy that.

You might look up at the blue sky, and really see it. Once clear sky seemed to mock you, going about it’s business despite your pain. But suddenly you’ll really see the sky again, appreciate it, allow it to bring you a sliver or joy.

One day soon you’ll notice a beautiful flower, or laugh at a joke, or sing along to something. Little by little, you WILL get better. Because you, as much as anyone, deserve happiness. You are worthy of love, of kindness and of compassion.

In the depths of the darkness it seems like you’ll never recover. But you simply must believe that you deserve better than this. Because you do. You are more than your depression and it does not define you. It is a chapter in your life, yes. Perhaps a big and significant one. But it’s not the final chapter.

Help is out there, so please, please, find someone who will listen to you. Who will sit with you in the dark place until you’re ready and capable of leaving it behind you. If it’s medication you need, take it. Seek out therapy, support, exercise…. Whatever you need. If you don’t know what you need, please find someone to guide you.

Falling apart gives you the opportunity to put yourself back together, like a phoenix from the ashes. You may never be quite the same, but that’s okay. Even in the dark you’ve been quietly blooming and learning. You just haven’t been able to see it in yourself. Soon you will.

Be kind to yourself, dear friend. It truly can and will get better. I promise. You’re not alone.

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You can find many more letters here.

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The Right Questions

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For some time now I’ve been planning a post centred around supporting loved ones with Post Natal Depression. If you’re a regular reader you’ll know that PND has played a big part in the lives of my family, close friends and me for the past two years. It’s something I’ve only spoken publicly about in the past few months and I find it easier to write than to speak about.

I now know what I need when I am at a low ebb. In my case it is usually help with the children and the opportunity for quiet reflection. To lick my wounds in private and to build up the strength to face the world again. Also anti-depressants and therapy featured heavily in my treatment, but for the purposes of this post I’m looking at what friends and family can do to help.

In researching this article I asked some of my readers and friends to share their experiences of depression with me and to tell me what they felt they needed in terms of support at their worst. What really struck me was how similar yet entirely different their replies are.

“I never really asked for practical help. If anyone had offered I would have put a front on that everything was fine and I was fine, even though I was beyond desperate.”

“I used to want to do everything as no one else did it the same as me or not to my high standards.”

“I would have loved someone to help with kids stuff like dinner times and even nursery runs as I really didn’t want to see or speak to other mums.”

“I felt better if someone took the kids and I got the cleaning done. It made me feel as if I had achieved something.”

“I’d have loved for people to have stopped by and offered to run the hoover around, or dropped a casserole off, but I couldn’t ask for those things for fear that people would think I wasn’t coping.”

“When people phoned I’d have liked them to ask after me and not just my new baby. I might not have been able to say anything, but it would have been nice to be asked.”

“What I wanted more than anything was company. Not to be alone with the babies. I didn’t actually want people to take them off my hands – but to come round and help me look after them, and help me to feel normal.”

“I just wanted to be left alone. I felt like there was never a moment for myself but I felt I couldn’t ask for help as I couldn’t bear the thought of people thinking (or knowing) that I wasn’t coping.”

“The worst thing for me was the feelings of isolation. I always needed to be around people whether it was friends, family or even strangers at a toddler group. I hated being at home alone.

I could fill pages and pages with quotes like these. Some women desperately need company and conversely others just want time alone. Some are silently crying out for help in the home and others can’t bear the thought of letting anyone else near the hoover. Some abhor the idea of unsolicited advice whilst others just want someone to take over and make everything okay.

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I have read and re-read this messages over and over, trying to digest them and to think of a way to coherently sum them up in to a neat article to solve everything. I hoped to narrow the stories down in to four easy-to-follow bullet points. These were my first three:
1) Listen with compassion and without judgement
2) Encourage professional help
3) Offer practical help.

I then got to point number four. Ask the right questions.

This, in my view, is absolutely the most crucial, key factor in supporting someone with depression. Without asking the right questions, nothing else matters. My previous three points are, well, pointless really.
Nothing else will work. You could run the risk of scaring the sufferer away or interfering, despite meaning well. If we don’t ask the right questions, we can’t possibly offer the right support.

In my previous life, before children, I spent thirteen years working in advertising. One of the first pieces of advice I was given was to ask open questions. They invite the other person to open up more and keep the conversation flowing.

Rather than this type of dead-end conversation….
You: Are you okay?
Them: “Yes thanks.”

It could be an idea to try something like this…
You: “So, is having a newborn what you thought it would be?”
or ” What is your favourite or least favourite thing so far about being a mummy? What has surprised you?” or “Is your partner enjoying being a new parent? What could they do differently to help more?”

You can see that questions like this encourage open dialogue. They offer the sufferer an opportunity to open up, if she is ready to.

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PND is so closely tied to a woman’s sense of worth as a mother.
Even the most well-meaning of comments can be twisted around in her mind to mean something else altogether. Mentioning that she is coping well, for example, can reinforce the fact that no-one understands what she is really going through. Offering to clean the house will probably leave her believing that you think her house is filthy and that she is a terrible mother. Offering to help with the children and bath time will cause horrible guilt and she will probably feel like a burden. Or, at least, this is how I felt in those situations. And the messages I’ve received show me I’m not alone in this.

This is why it is so, so hard to support someone who suffers with PND.

It is human nature to want to save people who are suffering with illness. We want to rush in and rescue, to take the pain away and to make it all better.
It is my style to offer practical advice or solutions to people in need. I’ll often turn up with a lasagne or offer to take kids to school or to clean the kitchen. It makes me feel like a better person to try to help others. In fact, I was told (rather bluntly, as it happens) by my therapist that this is, in fact a symptom of my own need to ask for help, but that’s another story.

My point being: sometimes these actions make us feel better, but not the intended recipient of our good deeds.

She might just want to sit in silence. She may want company. She may relish the idea of losing herself in the housework or baking whilst someone else watches the kids. Perhaps she wants to talk. But unless you ask the right questions, it’s simply impossible to tell.

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As the partner or close friend of someone with depression you will in all likelihood feel a combination of helplessness, anger, guilt, frustration and sadness. But it’s important to remember that depression is not personal. The fact that your loved one is not responding to your attempts to help them is no reflection on you. If you think about it, if G-d forbid you were supporting someone through cancer, you wouldn’t expect to be able to cure them by yourself. Depression is a shared responsibility, but not your sole responsibility. Professional help is out there and as the partner of someone with depression, it’s so important to seek out and to take the support that is available.

An old friend of mine, C, has supported his wife through post-natal and clinical depression for sixteen years. He gave me this advice:
” A depressed person ALWAYS sees one MASSIVE problem, but in reality problems are compound and are generally lots of little problems that if fixed (or managed) in turn, make the (not) massive problem simply crumble away.”

Please don’t ever imply that a depressed person can “pull themself together“. In my experience there is no statement more isolating or that further demonstrates a lack of understanding of what is going on. Depression is caused by a number of factors, with the main culprit being a chemical imbalance in the brain. There is nothing a depressed person would love more than the ability to “get a grip”. It’s just not that simple.

More than anything, my research has shown me that depressed people want to be listened to. Really, properly, listened to when they are ready to talk. Not with a view to offering solutions, not thinking about what to say next, just listening. My friend Sarah once sat with me whilst I sobbed. I spoke my darkest thoughts out loud and she just listened. She didn’t offer advice or try to fix me and I’ll be forever grateful for that. Sometimes shining light on darkness goes a long way towards chasing the shadows away.

I’m going to leave you with a passage from an incredible blog post by Andrew Lawes. You can find it in its entirety here, and follow him on Twitter @laweslaweslawes.

Try to imagine that depression is like being in a dark tunnel. The person with depression can’t see a thing, because everything is surrounded by darkness. Every sound is amplified, every fear is magnified. All they want to do is get out of the tunnel, but they can’t see where to go, they don’t know what to do. Your natural reaction is to lead them out of this dark tunnel, back to the light.

This is the WRONG approach.

You may think it makes sense, but for the person with depression, nothing makes sense. That’s the nature of the illness. They can’t be led out of the tunnel, because the fear is too great, the darkness is too dark. Trying to drag them out of this tunnel is more likely to make them curl up and hide than do any good.

What you need to do is be there for them. If they talk, just listen. Don’t talk, don’t give them opinions. Just really listen. Sit with them, let them talk. However upsetting or shocking what they say is, don’t give advice, just listen. When they finish, hug them, tell them you love them, and that however long it takes, you will be there until they find the strength to get better. You will never be able to lead someone out of the dark tunnel, all you can do is stay in the tunnel with them until they feel strong enough to lead themselves out.”


I’d just like to say a huge thank you to the women who shared their stories to make this post possible. I am so grateful for your bravery in sharing your darkest thoughts with a complete stranger.

I’d also like to clarify that I am not a medical professional. I have a list of support organisations here, if you’d like to talk to someone. Please do use it if you need to.

Truth

“The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life flow no longer in our souls.”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (November 12, 1815 – October 26, 1902) in her speech to the National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1890.

Truth. This word means a lot to me. I’m having to face a lot of truths at the moment. Truth can be painful. Speaking truth can leave you feeling vulnerable. Vulnerability is frightening. Truth can be terrifying.

But fearless truth telling can heal. Not only myself, but others who hear (or in this case read) it.

The truth of the matter is, my depression has been back and there has been absolutely nothing that I could do to stop it. No amount of late night over-thinking, crying, pretending, talking or remaining silent has managed to keep the Black Dog from my door.

So I am going to share my truth here. It might be painful to read and to write, but if nobody talks openly about taboo subjects like this, more and more people will suffer in silence. If one person reads this, and in doing so feels less alone, or seeks help it will be worth the emotional effort that writing a post like this involves.

Each time it returns, my depression seems to have mutated. Like a germ that’s become immune to antibiotics. Like something from a zombie film, lurking where you least expect it.

Seven months ago my biggest problem was anxiety. Crippling, physical, exhausting anxiety. Talk-based CBT helped this, as did medication, and now it’s not such an issue. This time around the relapse has involved a lot more paranoia and the darkest of thoughts. Feelings of being worthless, a burden, a disappointment.

Depression is a very cruel illness. It robs you of the ability to take on board any rational advice or listen to logic. You just can’t believe anything good about yourself at all. You seem to feel too much of everything and at the same time, not enough. Nothing makes sense in my experience, when it comes to depression. Thoughts which to any other person are ridiculous, horrifying or absurd seem perfectly acceptable. During a conversation with a friend who was once sectioned for her own safety, for example, I felt that perhaps that wasn’t such a bad thing to happen. At least there would be rest. And quiet. And help.

Last week I had a long conversation with my doctor. He increased my medication and referred me for more Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. During my assessment I answered several questions which gave a picture of where I am on a depression scale. Despite all of the feelings I’d been battling I was still crushed to hear that based on the answers I gave, I’m considered to be seriously depressed. The fact that I felt surprised by this news is ridiculous as I’ve been living with this for weeks now. But the truth is, I keep expecting someone to tell me that this has all been a mistake, I’m just a bit tired and no, I haven’t actually got a mental illness after-all.

One of the doctor’s questions covered suicidal feelings. Not a conversation I ever expected to have. But I answered truthfully. My truth is that whilst I would never, ever put my family through it, I can, at this point in my life, understand why people do choose to end their lives as a result of depression. I’m sorry if this is painful and shocking to read, but this post is about truth.

I am speaking my truth here, in the hope that saying this things aloud (or on screen, as it were) will banish them away. In my darkest moments, I truly believed that the world would be better off without me, and that my husband and children would be better off with a different wife and mother. I feel I should stress again, before anyone calls an ambulance, that at no point did I ever plan to act on these dark thoughts. There are too many people whom I love for me to ever do that. But what I am saying is when I read news stories about women who’ve ended their lives, I can understand the feelings of desperate desolation that must have driven them.

After leaving the doctor’s, feeling very fragile indeed, I messaged a good friend who has personal experience of depression herself. I explained my feelings to her. Her response contained the following wise words:

“Please try not to be heartbroken- we both know depression is always there in the background and it’s inevitable that there will be relapses throughout our lives. What’s important it how we deal with them”.

She went on to commend me for getting help. Her message was of great comfort to me at a time where I just wanted to take to my bed and howl.

But here’s the thing. Each time my depression comes under control again, I think it’s gone forever. When it returns, it comes as a massive shock to me. In writing this I realise how ridiculous this sounds, but it’s the truth. I can’t seem to accept the fact that this may in all likeliness be something that comes back again and again throughout my life. The thought terrifies me. I can’t really even bear to think about it.

As I write this, I am thinking about the people who I know, who may read this. What on earth is possessing me to write down my very darkest thoughts and share them on the internet? What will people think? Will it look as it I’m attention-seeking? But then I re-examine my reasons for this post. I am writing not only to help myself, but to try to help others. Not just those suffering from depression themselves, but those trying to support loved ones going through it.

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I “came out’ about my depression through this blog. Before doing so, only a couple of people knew about it. My closest friends weren’t even aware. They sent me incredible messages of support once they’d read my first post. But I admit, and so will they, that after that it became somewhat of an elephant in the room. No-one liked to broach the subject and I couldn’t seem to bring it up. I began to feel paranoid that I’d alienated myself from my friends, who were becoming used to reading my inner thoughts rather than hearing them in person.

I find the subject far easier to write about than to speak about and I’m very good at putting on a brave face to the outside world. But last week, on the insistence of a close friend, my friends and I finally had the conversation. I struggled not to fall to pieces in a busy restaurant whilst discussing it. They offered support and suggestions. They were relieved and so was I. I hope that next time (and I really hope there is never a next time) I’ll be able to reach out to them more and let them in.

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I sometimes wonder whether I actually feel too much. Too much of other people’s pain as well as my own. At the moment I have close friends going through horrendous divorce, serious ill-health and parental cancer. I spend so much time worrying about them whilst feeling incredible guilt for not being a supportive enough friend. Because at some point, like this past few weeks or so, I can only focus on myself and my family. I have to put our needs first but that feels so selfish. I have to concentrate on myself more and stop worrying so much about others.

Yesterday my friend’s one year old daughter broke her ankle for no apparent reason. The photo of her in her cast was enough to have me feeling low for an entire morning today. Other people would of course worry about a baby in distress. But for me, it seems to consume me. I internalise it and find it hard to switch off the worry. I suppose this is something for me to address once the therapy resumes again.

I’m really struggling with whether or not to publish this post. It still feels to raw and I’m worried about upsetting my family and friends. I’m also worried about what acquaintances will think.

So I’ll share this quote, to give myself a bit more courage:
“Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind”
Bernard Baruch (Often incorrectly attributed to Dr. Seuss, apparently).

So, if you’re a friend or acquaintance of mine and you’re reading this, don’t feel awkward when you see me next. I’m determined to get through this again and raising awareness is part of the process for me, it seems. In writing this I can feel a few subtle sparks of positivity somewhere deep inside, some flickering enthusiasm building slowly. It will be OK again. I will get through this again, bit by bit with the support of my loved ones. I have asked for help, and of that I am proud.

Before I hit publish, I’m going to take a deep breath and remind myself once again of my reasons for sharing this. To help myself to heal, and to help heal others.

If you’re reading this and you’re suffering, please do get help. Speak to someone. If you’re worried about someone, please offer support. Only by being supportive to one another can we break the stigma and help one another. And that’s the Truth.

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All pictures credited to the Brave Girls Club