25 August 2014

No news is good news

'Let's not watch the news, it's too depressing.' My boyfriend picked up the remote control and switched channels before the broadcast began. We were on the last night of a great holiday and I was equally keen not to tarnish it with the doom and gloom of the real world.

The next morning, as we drove home, the radio news revealed how grim the previous day had, in fact, been: rebels had shot down a passenger plane over Ukraine and hostilities had escalated in Gaza.

The following day, I left the BBC 24-hour television news on in the background, while I finished unpacking and settling back in at home. As the day wore on, they began to release the names of the crash victims, along with their photos and life stories. With every fresh piece of information, the knot in my throat tightened and I felt closer to tears. Eventually, I could take no more and turned the television off.

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Most right-minded people would find such news coverage upsetting, but, for me, it can also exacerbate my OCD compulsions: the more scary and out of control the world seems, the more I need to control my own environment. 

Many a tragedy has sent me into a frenzy of ordering: from the shooting massacres of Dunblane and Ut√łya, to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the London bombings. Although natural disasters may bring a higher death toll, I find myself more affected by instances of man's inhumanity against man.

Apparently, the reason for my distress is that the mind can't distinguish between direct threats and distant ones, hence, it makes no difference that I am not in immediate danger myself.

On this most recent occasion, it was hard to tell whether the reported events made my compulsions worse, as reclaiming my territory after a holiday has the same effect. Switching off the saturation coverage at that point was the right thing to do, though, to minimise the risk.

This same news channel has a viewer feedback show and, that week, some complained about the reporting of the crash, which showed body parts and passengers' personal belongings. The director explained that such footage was necessary to bring out the story's human side and to convey the horror of the incident. The viewers' response was that you didn't need to see charred limbs to appreciate the consequences of a plane crash. I agree; coverage can go too far.

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Many who suffer with mental health disorders are, like me, over-sensitive. Add in the fact that I have a very visual imagination, and I'm likely to engage far more than is healthy with any news story. For that reason, I also avoid documentaries about past events such as 9/11, so as not to revive the mental distress I experienced at the time.

While I don't subscribe to one colleague's approach, of never watching the news, there is no harm, or shame, in occasionally switching off from the world outside, whether literally or metaphorically. No news is sometimes good news, at least for your mental health.

18 August 2014

Black dog

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Thousands of words have already been written about the actor and comedian, Robin Williams, in the week since his suicide. I would not have added my own voice, were it not for a friend's comment on my last post, which dealt with my response to feeling less anxious, and how this happier state might have arisen. 

'One thing you didn't explain was what you meant by trying to "think more positively",' my friend said. 'How did you actually do that? It might help other people.'

She was right, it might, and so I gave it further thought. I quickly realised, however, that I couldn't be sure how I was suddenly able to look on the brighter side of life; I hadn't really done anything.

Yes, I had chosen, quite deliberately, to view my wonderful birthday dinner as the turning point in a very difficult year, and my spirits are still high, two months on. But would I have been able to sustain even that first flush of positivity, if a fresh crisis had immediately struck? 

Consciously adopting the view that your life is on the up isn't enough to guarantee contentment. While I'm definitely dealing with trivial causes of anxiety better than usual, perhaps that is more to do with the absence - for now - of any significant domestic or personal difficulties. The fact of the matter is, my new-found optimism has yet to be properly put to the test.

And so to Robin Williams. 

As each fresh layer of his life has been stripped away, a new theory has emerged to explain his death - had he resumed drinking, was it financial problems, or perhaps the diagnosis of Parkinson's Disease? One, some or all of these factors might have contributed to his final act, or maybe something else entirely; we'll never know. 

Perhaps even Robin Williams would have been hard pressed to explain. It can be difficult for anyone to pinpoint what tips them into severe anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts; the human mind is just so fragile and unpredictable. 

Although I do not fully understand what it is like to be clinically (ie severely) depressed, I do have some small insight into how this might feel.

Earlier this year, for several weeks, I found it difficult to get out of bed and, when I finally did, had to drag myself through the day. Reviewing the symptoms of depression detailed in Mind's booklet, Understanding Depression, I did have a mild form - as opposed to just feeling low - and probably not just then, but on other occasions in the past.

Yet even this insight didn't prevent me from glibly writing of positive thinking, which potentially feeds into the misconception that anxiety and depression are things you can just snap out of. Of course, you can't. Even if you do succeed in thinking positively, it is only a very small piece of a complex mental puzzle.

When a celebrity kills themselves, it's not long before somebody points out, often smugly, that 'Money can't buy you happiness'. Doesn't that comment alone prove how difficult it can be to deal with depression? If beauty, fame and fortune don't provide immunity, then what a truly terrible condition this must be.

RIP Robin Williams.

* * *

For an insight into depression, take a look at Matthew Johnstone's beautifully illustrated 'black dog' story.

11 August 2014

A worrying void

'You'd worry if you had nothing to worry about!' It's a charge often levelled at those of us who suffer from anxiety and implies that we actually enjoy being anxious all of the time, about everything. That accusation is often followed by the simplistic suggestion that we shouldn't fret so much.

This is about as helpful as telling an overweight person that they shouldn't eat so much. The most common cause of weight gain may well be overeating, but the underlying mental and emotional issues need to be untangled first, for any diet to work. 


Likewise with anxiety - you can't just stop it at will. There are, of course, measures available to tackle it; however, it takes as big an effort to overcome a lifetime of bad mental habits, as it does to overcome a lifetime of bad eating habits.


If and when you do achieve a greater peace of mind, the experience can be quite unnerving. It's that experience, and our response to it, that might create the impression we're lost without something to worry about.


I've recently reached an unusual mental equilibrium; an existence that is by no means anxiety free, but, at least, not entirely governed by worry. This is, in part, a result of my efforts to think more positively, but also due to life throwing me fewer curve balls of late. And I've found that the absence of worry leaves a strange mental vacuum; my mind somehow feels under occupied. While I don't want the worry back, the void is quite disconcerting. 
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There has been a physical change, too. The side effects of persistent anxiety - the racing heart, churning stomach, loss of appetite and insomnia - have gone and, with them, the resulting exhaustion. Feeling more energised is welcome, if slightly unsettling; I keep waiting for the crash.


It's hard to believe that the usual intense anxiety has really abated. Now and again, I deliberately think about recent causes of concern to test my reaction; these are situations that haven't changed, so are, potentially, just as anxiety-inducing as before. 


This might seem a pointless, or even risky, undertaking, but it's no different from testing out a previously injured limb. If you damaged your knee, you'd want to be sure, upon recovery, that it would really hold up, before resuming your normal activities. Even then, you might continue to be insecure about your new, healed status, and fearful of the old injury recurring.


In the same way, I'm testing my mind - not because I'm 'worried about having nothing to worry about', but to see whether it will remain strong in the face of thoughts that previously provoked severe anxiety. For now, it is; and I'm even getting used to it.


4 August 2014

Be prepared

Hands up if your holiday packing list has ever included a fridge thermometer or a radiator key. No? What, not one of you? Not even those who take self-catering holidays in the UK? 

I admit, these items may seem a little strange, but their inclusion on my own list is based on past experience of more than a dozen rental cottages. While my boyfriend and I have never stayed in a bad one, many have had quirks, failings or faults that have caused problems. My desire to ensure the perfect experience in future has led me, in response, to pack accordingly.

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There was the super-efficient fridge at the cottage in the Peak District that I set so low - to avoid food contamination - that I froze half the contents. Hence the thermometer.

Then there were the radiators in the house in North Wales that had so much air in them that they stuck at lukewarm. Hardly ideal in October - I repeat, in North Wales. Hence the key.

From there, the list has grown to include other unusual articles: old newspapers, on which to deposit wet shoes; a head torch, to navigate unlit lanes to the pub; and an apron and oven glove, to afford protection to clothes and hands when cooking.

Some places also come curiously ill-equipped. There was the beautiful bungalow in North Yorkshire with a washing machine, but no clothes' airer or washing line. After we did an emergency wash, we had to drape items over the radiators and hook hangers off every available ledge, turning a lovely interior into something of an eyesore. I haven't yet resorted to packing an airer, but, come to think of it, string and pegs wouldn't take up much space...

And then there are some situations that you just can't plan for. 

In our chocolate-box cottage in Dorset, we only managed to spark some of the radiators into life by bleeding them (which, at least, vindicated taking the key on holiday for three years), the toilet cistern in the en suite dripped constantly and the water supply to the kitchen went off twice. We really needed a plumber and a heating engineer; unfortunately, I had failed to pack either.

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On our last trip, in July, to a beautiful cottage in Somerset, we encountered our strangest problem yet: the front door couldn't be unlocked from the inside. Fortunately, the building was one storey, with French doors from the kitchen and one bedroom, so we were able to get out; which was just as well, as we had no mobile signal and otherwise would have had to email for help - luckily, the Wi-Fi worked.

Next time around, we should hire a minibus and rent a house that will accommodate at least a dozen, so that we can take all the tradespeople we might need with us: heating engineer, plumber, electrician, locksmith, TV/satellite engineer...

After all, as any Scout - and perfectionist - knows, you should always 'be prepared'.