Saturday, 18 April 2009

It's not just my belt that's blue...

I’ve been thinking about posting about this subject for some time now. I’ve wondered whether it’s something that I should keep to myself as there can be a lot of misunderstanding and prejudice around the subject. But I always intended this blog to be an honest account of my BJJ journey and the topic in hand is very much part of my relationship with BJJ. I also think that with, statistically at least, any one in four of the people reading this will be going through something similar and I hope, even if only in a modest way, that if I can help someone to see that it’s all very common, then I can break some of the confusion and stigma.

I’m talking about depression.

I’ve been properly diagnosed with depression for about four years now, but with hindsight I can think back to having lived with it for at least the last decade. It’s a difficult topic to discuss and all I can give is my own personal experience. I guess I’ll start with how it feels, and I’m pretty sure this will be different for every individual. And I apologise in advance if any of this seems disjointed…it’s mainly a flow of consciousness.

For me, thinking back to my worst times, I can only really describe it as absolute, desperate sadness. Your whole world becomes void of light – the image of a grey cloud is a good one...except that it doesn’t just hover over you and rain periodically, it envelops you and constantly drenches you. It’s not just a case of being “a bit down” – it’s an insidious presence that completely alters reality…and it’s clever. You never see it happening. It becomes you. It becomes your reality and you don’t even notice. Despite even the best intentions of those around you urging you to not “let it control you” or the worst one, “get a grip”, you can never see anything except the bleak reality that exists for you. There’s a sketch by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as “Pete and Dud”, called “The Futility of Life” which sums this up nicely – here’s an excerpt:

PETE: No words can convey the merest inkling of my innermost thoughts.
DUD: On the contrary. What you've just said has conveyed to me in detail the nature of your malaise. You're feeling a bit droopy.
PETE: A bit droopy? You're the sort of person who'd have gone up to Joan of arc as the flames licked round her vitals and said,
'Feeling one degree under? Like a nice cup of tea?'
DUD: You know what my mother would say?
PETE: No.
DUD: 'Somebody has got out of bed the wrong side this morning.'
PETE: If your mother said that to me today, I'd smash her in the teeth with the coal scuttle.
DUD: Oh, I see. You're feeling a bit temperamental. As Dr Groarke would say 'half temper, half mental.'
PETE: These glib platitudes are, if anything, exacerbating an already unbearable mood of depression.
DUD: If you're depressed, there's no point sitting around feeling sorry for yourself. That won't get the washing up done.
PETE: Dud, your uncanny grasp of domestic trivia is of negligible therapeutic value, and if you tell me to pull myself together or snap out
of it, I might well do something rash.
DUD: I wouldn't say anything like that. Get a grip on yourself, look on the bright side.
DUD and PETE (together): Count your blessings.
DUD: Ooh, Mr Acid Drop himself. Come on, you'll feel better if you get it off your chest. You can confide in me. I mean, what am I here for?
PETE: In your fumbling way you have actually articulated the fundamental question. What are you here for? What am I here for? What is the purpose of life?

Depression is a horribly self-obsessed condition where your whole world turns inwards, as far as you’re concerned, no-one else understands what you’re going through and whatever is going on, it always feels worse for you. This is distinct from self-pity, which I think casual observers and cynics dismiss depression as being. Reality is in the eye of the beholder – we all see things differently and just because someone else sees that you have nothing to feel sad about, will not, and does not, make it so.

There have been many times when I’ve just wanted life to stop. I’m not talking about suicide…I’ve just felt it would be easier to not exist…”stop the world, I want to get off!”. This is why I’ve often found myself curled up under the duvet, with tears in my eyes trying to pretend that the world outside is on hold while I try and get some respite. All kinds of thoughts enter my head when I’m in a depression - a kilo of self-loathing, a few ounces of self-doubt, a cup of cynicism, a few tablespoons of hatred and a good dollop of anxiety and anger – key ingredients for a maelstrom of spiralling negativity.

You get moments of clarity when you start to see the roots of some of these thoughts and see the persona that you’ve become…you realise that you’re no longer the person that you used to be. For me, I became withdrawn and irritable and it’s true what they say – you always hurt the ones you love most. In public, you manage to maintain the persona that everyone wants to see, in private, you become moody, irritable…downright unpleasant to be around. That in itself is a huge cause for concern and grief and you can feel at a loss as to how you can get back, or even if you can.

The good news is, you can. Thankfully, my wife understands what’s going on and can very objectively see the changes when I’m slipping into a depression and prompt me to seek help. I’m lucky in that I have a great GP who is very knowledgeable about depression and takes an interest in me and my family and wants to see us all well. In the past I’ve taken Fluoxentine (“Prozac”) which at the time, faced with depression and anxiety was a great way to even out my emotional state. It brought me to a point where I felt I could cope again and even managed to come off it. However, for me, it evened things out too much – I didn’t experience the desperate lows any longer, but the cost was that I was also unable to experience the highs – to quote Blur’s “Country House” – “It’s a helping hand that makes you feel wonderfully bland”.

I’ve spent a lot of time reading about and trying to understand my condition and I’ve come to view it quite objectively as the illness that it is. Some people have diabetes and take insulin to control it, others have asthma and take ventolin. You break a leg and you wear a cast to help it heal. You can’t see my illness, but like all the others, from time to time, I take a medicine to control/alleviate it.

There is a scientific basis for depression – in my case I do not have enough Serotonin available to regulate my mood. Some of this is genetic, some of it is brought about by my brain using neurochemicals too quickly due to stress, some of which can be caused by the way I think and feel about certain things. The physical link between thinking patterns and mental health are well established – literally a case of mind over matter. Many anti-depressants are what’s known as Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) and these work by controlling the amount of Serotonin that is used by the brain to ensure that there is always some available to the brain, thus regulating mood, which in turn, helps control thoughts. For me, the neurochemical/thought pattern process is a bit of a chicken and egg quandry – I’m not sure which way round it operates, but once the cycle starts it’s a pretty rapid downward spiral that needs intervention to help it.

I came out of a major depression with the help of Fluoxetine, feeling strong and capable, like I’d beaten the illness. In many ways I was grateful for the experience – it can give perspective on life, that, actually, it’s pretty great and you can only really appreciate that if you’ve seen the other side. I was also certain that having had the experience that I’d recognise the signs if it were to return.

I didn’t. Like I said, it sneaks up on you. It’s a con artist. It obscures your vision so that the false reality that you experience becomes true reality and before you know it, you’re back in that dark place again. For anyone that’s seen “The Matrix” – it feels like that to me. Like you’re trapped in a reality that you accept, but something tells you that it’s not right, that it’s not really your reality and it’s a battle to get out of it.

Right now, (I hope) I’m on the lower up side of the curve from a recent down. I’ve been taking Citalopram (another SSRI) which, whilst having more initial side effects (nausea, problems sleeping) – and I suspect will be harder to come off, has been very good. It has stabilised my moods and hasn’t numbed me in the same way that Prozac did. I’m also, at last, after a long wait, getting some help through talking therapies which I hope will give me further insight to my thoughts and ways of moving forward.

There are also plenty of other things to help you along: loads of reading – I’ve recently finished reading “The Art of Happiness” by the Dalai Lama, which had some great perspectives. At the moment I'm reading "The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness" by Williams et al, which describes a grat way of using meditation to overcome depression. This book comes with a useful CD of guided meditations, and I've said before that I find meditation useful. Topics like Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) are useful and interesting. The web is an amazing resource for scientific data, support, experiences and so on. One of the most useful I’ve found is the Mind website (UK based mental health charity). I’ve also bought a “Bodyclock” from Lumie – an alarm clock that wakes you with a simulated sunrise - far more natural and civilised way of being woken on a dark winter morning (the seasons do have a major effect on my mood) and there’s also a sunset feature for use at bed time to lull you into a more natural sleep. I’ve found this excellent. Also from Lumie, I’ve bought a desktop Lightbox to give me my dosage of light each day, again, especially in the Winter months. Whether this has worked or not, I’m not sure – I haven’t used it long enough to know, but I feel it may have reduced the fatigue I feel on grey days and all I can say is now that the lighter days are here, I feel my mood has improved dramatically. I’ve also looked into the linkages between diet, supplementation and mood and there’s compelling data around on this subject – well worth reading up on and there are a host of more natural remedies like St. John’s Wort and 5HTP than can help, although you do need to read up as there are interactions between various types and prescription drugs.

There’s one last thing I want to talk about and that is others’ perceptions on mental health. Some of my good friends have also had bouts of depression – some worse, all different in their own way. It’s really common…more common than you think because many people will not tell others about this problem for fear of being judged “a malingerer” or a “nutter” or some other prejudicial term. I was on the Tube the other day and I saw a series of posters for the “Time to Change” campaign which is a joint project by some of the main mental health charities to end discrimination faced by people who experience mental health problems. Such a project is well overdue and is supported by some familiar faces, some of whom you would never have known suffered from mental illness. Please take a look at this valuable campaign.


Time to Change Stephen Fry Banner

Those close to me know I have this illness. Others do not – this is certainly the first time I’ve spoken about it publicly. Because it’s been hidden I’ve heard others making judgments about people. I work in an HR function and regularly hear people off work with stress and depression being labeled as “Skivers” or worse. Now, I’m not naïve and there will always be a percentage of people who play the game, but for someone who is in deep emotional pain to be labeled a “skiver” is disgraceful and offensive. Because there are no outward signs of suffering does not mean that the pain felt inside is not acute. I challenge everyone to consider what life might be like living with mental illness and not be so quick to judge. Please take the time to understand and challenge your own perceptions…it’s statistically in your interest to do so as one day either you, or someone close to you will suffer from some form of mental illness.

So what has this got to do with BJJ?

Everything.

In a recent post, I wrote about meditation and this meditation is great relief from the inner thoughts that can send me into spirals of negativity. It’s great exercise and exercise is a great remedy for depression, so much so that some doctors have prescribed gym membership to patients. It allows me to connect with something tangible, something where I can see, that with application, I can make progress – a metaphor for life and something to give me hope that I can do the same in other areas of my life. But I think most of all, it’s the people. Meeting like minded people who do actually care about how you are, what’s going on with you, like you – it counts for so much. It’s so important to keep active and social (god knows it would be easier to succumb and not) and having such great people around you makes it easy and pleasurable. So thanks to all my good friends in BJJ.

I close this post with these few thoughts. For those that know me, please don’t think differently of me having read this. I’m still the same person I always was – just now you know something different about me. I don’t walk around near suicide every day. Mostly life is normal and I enjoy it. For those that don’t know me, thanks for reading – please think about what I’ve said and if you identify with anything here then I hope you found it interesting and useful.

Wishing you good mental health…

Al.

4 comments:

Alex said...

Hey man - Greetings from the USA. I wanted to let you know that you are dead on in your latest post about depression. I have dealt more with bouts of anxiety, but some of the big D thrown in during tough times. sometimes the grip would be so intense that I lost all interest to do anything - workout, eat, sleep, talk to friends, anything.

I have found several things that have helped me a great deal. Lexapro, meditation, seeing a therapist once a month, and BJJ. My family has been a great help as well. You hit on all the reasons why already.

I searched on google last weekend for "how long to get BJJ blue belt" and found your blog. The next day my instructor suprised me with the blue belt. What a coincidence.

Also - you may find "The Power of Now" by Tolle an interesting read.

Best of luck to you.

Al said...

Hey Alex,

thanks for reading and thanks for the feedback...great to hear from others on this subject.

Congratulations on the blue belt!

All the best,

Al

matthew said...

Well done for putting out such an honest and positive message about your experiences with this misunderstood illness. You are clearly a warrior on and off the mat! Good luck my friend.

Matt

Al said...

Thanks Matt. All the best to you.

Al