Tag Archives: depression

Why we need to tell our stories

I wasn’t going to write any more posts about depression and suicide, but I’ve been thinking this week about a writer I knew, Jonny Zucker, who killed himself last year.

Jonny’s family have just announced the Striker Boy campaign, in which they are donating all proceeds of a new edition of one of his books to the mental health charity, Mind.

When Jonny died, the tributes and memories that poured in all said very similar things. How generous he was, how full of energy and enthusiasm, how funny, and how very loved.

So often, those who take their own lives seem to be bright stars like him, people who have touched other people’s lives in one way or another, but don’t seem to have understood how amazing they are.

So here I am, thinking and talking about suicide again, wishing like everyone must, that there was some way of reaching across the dreadful chasm that can open up around a person and swallow them down.

I don’t think we can convince somebody thinking about suicide how wonderful and loved they are, or how much they matter. Even if we could, would that be enough to reach across the chasm and hold onto them?

Certainly, we can make sure the people around us know we are there for them, and will listen in a non-judging way, if they ever need someone to turn to. We can avoid saying unhelpful things that will make the person feel even worse, such as ‘I don’t know why you’re so hard on yourself’ or ‘Why don’t you just snap out of it?’ But not everyone is actually able to talk about it when they’re struggling with depression.

My feeling is that the biggest thing we can do for each other is be honest and not hide our own darkness. Sadness, feelings of pointlessness, even despair, are all part of the human condition, although that goes against our cultural assumptions.

We think we should be able to be happy all the time and every kind of pain is – or certainly should be – fixable. In our culture, unhappiness feels like failure, and we’re ashamed of owning up to it.

But the golden life is an illusion. We shouldn’t be claiming it while hiding our own darkness, because that make the darkness even more terrifying and lonely for people currently going through it.

What we need to recognise and especially to teach our children is that everyone experiences sadness, fear, despair… it’s natural. Life can be hard, but we can learn to handle it. This is the message in all my kids’ self-help books, including How 2B Happy.

I don’t mean I think we should bang on about our problems all the time, but just be real with each other. Real life stories belong to all of us; they lift us above our own situation and show us our wider human condition. They give us a sense of belonging.

A member of Jonny’s family commented, ‘Mental health needs to be discussed in the open and these personal stories need to be shared.’

I could not agree more.

If you would like to buy a copy of Jonny’s book, the new special edition comes out on October 6th. 

 

 

 

 

 

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What can you do when the black dog comes calling?

What can you do in the depths of depression? Nothing. That really is the point. You may be able to keep functioning for years, keeping the lid on the echo chamber of your heart, but if you fall through, your reason and senses, your energy and willpower, your connection with other people, everything that normally sustains you will be gone.

This is a terrifying experience and, while it’s still horribly fresh in my mind, I’d like to say a bit about what helped me, in case it happens to you.

When you fall:

  • be kind to yourself. Be aware that negative thoughts, especially about yourself, will rise like scum. Let them bubble over and be gone. Don’t drink them in.
  • explain to others what you need – they may not understand that detaching yourself feels frightening for you, and doesn’t even slightly mean you love or need them less. You need them more, but you need them to allow that distance, and hold the space.
  • bear it. Have faith that it will pass, because everything does; that’s the nature of life. It might come back, but then it will pass again.
  • believe and be alert. Look for treasure in the darkness, and be ready to embrace the opportunities it brings for balance and transformation.

After the crisis, as you begin to feel life stirring again:

  • try to connect with other people, especially in ways that may be helpful to them. At first, connecting with people you don’t know well could be easier, because you may still feel too fragile to cope with the powerful emotions you feel for your nearest and dearest.
  • surround yourself with beauty. This doesn’t mean you have to seek out beautiful things, but simply to notice the beauty in every single thing around you.
  • feel part of the natural world. In wild places, parks or your own back garden, feel the bare earth beneath you and the boundless sky above.
  • give yourself time. Don’t try to get back to normal as quickly as you possibly can, because a deep bout of depression changes you, and ‘normal’ might not be the same. In my experience, it will be better.

When I was able to get up again from my bed of tears, these were the things that helped and soothed me back to myself.

I couldn’t write books, but I could create new workshops, because I thought of them like gifts to other people. And as with every gift, I got back much more than I gave, in warmth and positive regard. I couldn’t walk far, but I spent hours on the beach or outside in the garden, just being.

Nobody wants a visit from the black dog of depression, but if he’s part of your nature, as he is for many creative people, trying to keep him out is fighting yourself. This is only my view, I should add. I know that other people prefer to hold the black dog at bay with drugs or therapy.

I would never suggest you shouldn’t seek medical or psychological help if you suffer from depression. I tried every therapy going throughout my teens and twenties, and beyond, and if anything had worked for me, I probably would never have taken the hard choice to stop trying to keep the black dog out, and learn to live with him. (I’ve blogged about ‘How I Tamed My Black Dog’ here)

But I’m glad I had to in the end, because through disrupting my known and normal life, he opens me up to change.

How do you respond when the black dog comes calling? Have you got any tips of your own to share?

 

 

A dream of darkness

A few days after I last blogged, way back in May, I went to Iceland. I’d always been drawn to the North, so Iceland had been on my must-see list for decades, but what made me actually go this year was a series of dreams I had around the time of my mother’s death last November. They were ‘big dreams’ – dreams that had a momentous quality, a deep sense of mystery and meaning.

They were a call to ancestors, to the place beyond death and, specifically, to Iceland. So like all dreamers, who have learnt how and when to listen, I followed the call of my dreams.

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Being in Iceland felt, to me, like being in a dream. I had completely underestimated the size of the island, and the sparseness of the population; I had not expected the vast tracts of volcanic deserts and inaccessible mountains. I hadn’t noticed that the key on my map had only three kinds of terrain – places where something’s growing, places where not much is growing, and places where basically nothing is growing at all, which was about 40 percent of the land.

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Ice, water – and fire too. In Iceland, the hot water in your shower smells of sulphur, because it’s piped straight out of the volcanic ground, and when you’re walking in some places, you can hear the gurgle of water boiling and bubbling, breathing out wafts of sulphurous steam, and then the earth feels like a living being. You can absolutely understand why Icelandic people believe in earth spirits – you can believe it yourself.

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Land of fire and ice, and of light and darkness too. I visited several art exhibitions which explored the creative sensibility of the peoples of the North, shaped by long dark winters and summer months of continuous light. They made explicit how this environment can drive a psychological rhythm between extremes of celebration and isolation, of joy and depression.

I felt these extremes in myself, the whole time I was there. On the surface, excited and enchanted by everything I saw and everyone I met, but sensing all the time, the darkness moving underneath. A few days in, I had this dream:

The car is packed for the next stage of my journey and I’m having a last cup of tea with my hosts. Looking out over Rekjavik through their big window, I see a sudden darkness coming across the sky – clouds?

I see black clouds rising along the edge of town, pouring up into the air from the ground, and as I watch, a sudden column of sparkling fire shoots up, exploding in a great shower of sparks, orange and red, filling the thick black cloud that’s covering everything.

‘What is that?’ I gasp.

‘The volcano’s erupting.’

Black soot is falling everywhere, covering everything, but it doesn’t matter. This is what I’ve come for. The darkness. Not just fun and distraction. I always knew it.

It was the beginning of what has been, for me, a difficult summer. I went to Iceland following the kind of dreams that will take you deep into your own darkness, as well as bringing you, eventually, to wonder and light.

I had expected to meet the black dog, but black dogs come in different shapes and sizes. This one turned out to be huge and hungry, feral and strong, and he was never going to settle for living in my house like a sad old labrador for just a few weeks or months.

It’s been a long and exhausting trek through his cold darkness but, last week, I woke one morning with a great sense of relief, after my first full night’s sleep for months, and a bright thought filled my mind like a sunrise, ‘It’s over now.’

I’m sorry I was away so long, but very happy to be back. 

 

Why my new book is published today

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day.

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Years ago, a friend told me she thought that the world was divided into two sorts of people – those who had seriously contemplated suicide, and those who had never even considered it.

At the time, I felt sceptical, because thinking about suicide started for me in early childhood and I’d always assumed that everyone did it, but when I asked around, it turned out maybe she was right. Lots of friends told me it had never even occurred to them, but for others it was like a kind of home base, the place they always returned to in their dark times.

I think young people who have this mindset are particularly vulnerable because they don’t have the experience yet to know those desperate feelings do pass, and things do get better. Most of those who have made serious suicide attempts express gratitude later that they didn’t succeed.

So the message older people want to give to vulnerable young people is ‘Hold on’, as in the classic REM song “Everybody Hurts’ which was written in deliberately straightforward language, for pre-college teens.

Lesbian, gay,bisexual and transgender teenagers have a very much increased risk of suicide, and there’s great work being done for them in the It Gets Better Project, where ordinary LGBT adults share their stories of getting through horrible times at school to go on and lead successful lives in happy relationships.

Siblings of suicide are another very high risk group, and they’re the people I wanted to tell, as a survivor of sibling suicide, it does get better. I’ve done it the best way I know how to, in my new Young Adult novel, Drift, the story of a 16-year-old girl whose brother has killed himself.

It’s her story, not mine, but because of my story, I knew how to write it.

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Drift is published today.

You can read my first interview about the book on the book eaters site.

‘If I had to summarise this book with just one word, it would be beautiful…’ See the rest of young book blogger Marta’s review here.

The dark place, sad dreams, antidepressants and creativity…

Looking back over my blog stats for 2014, I discovered the three posts that got by far the most views were:

  1. Do antidepressants help or hinder creativity?
  2. The dark place where talent leads
  3. How can a really sad dream be a really good thing?

This surprised me at first, but when I thought about it, it seemed less surprising. The people who call by the House of Dreams are almost all dreamers and writers, and dreamers and writers are acquainted with their own inner darkness, and know how powerful it can be.

When you first engage with the darkness, it can be terrifying, and you may look for reassurance that you will not come to harm.

As you explore further, you find the darkness is full of meaning, and then you may look for other explorers who will understand your experience.

Carl Jung said that he stopped trying to cure people of depression when he realised that the way to make your darkness less dark was to accept it and inhabit it.

When creative people and depressives, and dreamers like me, are called to the darkness, that is a gift of opportunity, even though it is a gift nobody wants.

The sick man has not to learn how to get rid of his neurosis, but how to bear it. For the illness is not a superfluous and senseless burden, it is himself.

CG Jung

The darkness holds the keys to the self, and more. On the other side of meaning, where both the dark and the light are dissolved, all is energy and possibility, and we can experience pure creative freedom.

I believe in this journey. It can be long, and bewildering; it can feel unbearable. But if we can learn to bear the darkness, there is treasure to be found.

I hesitate to write about depression because it may sound as if I don’t understand how terrible it can be. I do. I suffered from  depression for many years before I stopped fighting it and, paradoxically, began to win.

These three posts about the darkness brought a wealth of wisdom and experience in the comments, which I hope you will take the time to read.

Has depression or the creative journey ever brought healing and insights for you? 

 

Do antidepressants help or hinder creativity?

A while ago, I stumbled upon an interesting article by the novelist, Alex Preston Does Prozac help artists be creative? and reading it reminded me of my own experience of prescription drugs in my teens and twenties.

In his article, Alex Preston interviews a number of successful writers about their experience of taking anti-depressants and one thing that comes to light is that although the pills might help people to overcome blocks and inhibitions so that they can start writing again, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily producing very good work.

I first experienced depression as a young child and I was receiving treatment by the time I was twelve. Before I started taking the pills I had always thought of my extremes of emotion as being like the weather, some days dark and overcast, some bright and sunny. Sometimes, with a sense of dread, I could feel the storm clouds gathering; other times I could feel the dark clouds lifting away.

Storm clouds gathering
Storm clouds gathering

How I dealt with the darkness was through drawing, painting and writing poems. One time, I designed the cover of a poetry book which I called ‘Poems of the Darkness and the Light,’ and my teacher didn’t believe I had made the title up. As if children could not feel the darkness as well as the light.

My darkness and light were part of my nature, they were my micro-climate, and after I started taking anti-depressants I stopped feeling like me. It felt as if someone else was living my life, but doing a better job of it than I would have done in terms of passing exams and doing the work at university.

I stopped taking anti-depressants some ten years after I started, because when my older sister killed herself with prescription drugs it seemed clear to me that they weren’t any kind of cure at all. The withdrawal was terrible.

But in time, I started to write again. I learnt to flow with my own rhythm of highs and lows. It felt like the difference between trying to find your way in the dark within the narrow beam of a torch, then switching it off and waiting until your eyes acclimatise and gradually the dark is less dark, there are stars and glimmers, a faint smudge of hedges, a pale ribbon of road.

All these years later, I remember what it felt like to be numbed out of my own life on a diet of pills. If I hadn’t been shocked out of it by my sister’s suicide I probably would have stayed like that, and never discovered the fertile darkness, or come home to myself.

Walking in the dark
Walking in the dark

The Uses of Sorrow – by Mary Oliver

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.

My feelings about anti-depressants have come out of my personal experience and I’m sure other people will have very different views and stories. Have you ever taken anti-depressants? Did you feel they helped or hindered your creativity?

Matt Haig (Reasons to Stay Alive) has written a moving and thoughtful article about depression here. Like me, he believes there isn’t any one size fits all solution.

If you think you may be suffering from depression there’s a balanced guide that’s well worth reading here

You may also like to read Carolyn Hughes’ moving account of her own experience and treatment in The Hurt Healer

 

Depression, dreams and the creative life

A few weeks ago, I heard author Matthew Johnstone talking about his experience of depression on the BBC World Service, and it got me thinking about the link between depression, dreams and the creative life.

Strikingly, Matthew said he would not change anything – his depression was part of him. Rather than try to kill the black dog, he had learnt how to tame it.

Matthew Johnstone’s book

In the West, we treat depression as an illness, a malfunction in the brain which needs to be cured with chemicals or brought under control by psychological explanations.

Depression challenges all our cultural values. It makes us antisocial in a world where naturally solitary types are labelled ‘poorly socialised’; it makes us still, in a world of manic activity.

Depression stops us from having what we want – which boils down to happiness – and we believe we should always be able to get what we want, because this is a secular world. Without God/fate/mystery, we expect to have control over our own lives.

Nobody would choose to feel depressed, but that is precisely the opportunity depression brings. It brings us to a standstill on our chosen track and, by stopping us from having what we think we want, it opens us up to something new and unexpected. It makes our life bigger.

It’s a well-documented fact that people dream more during periods of depression. Often these dreams are particularly vivid and memorable; they release a torrent of new images which, if we pay attention, can open doorways into new places of the mind, and inspire new directions in life. The loss of these life-giving dreams may be one of the most harmful side-effects of antidepressant drugs.

All major antidepressant drugs, except trimipramine, mirtazapine and nefazodone suppress REM sleep

Many writers label their depression as ‘writer’s block.’ Suddenly the story they thought they had all planned out is stalled, or they can’t find any ideas for the next one. But this is the gift of the black dog for writers – it forces you to be still and receptive, so that new insights and inspirations can come in.

Writer’s block is simply impatience, which means literally the inability to tolerate suffering, delay, toil or vexation (from the Latin word meaning ‘to bear’)

Depression can feel dark and frightening, like a big black dog, but kicking him will make him mean. Don’t try to kill him, but don’t underestimate him either – if he hangs around your house, you need to tame him.

I think the black dog is a special danger for children and young people, before life has given them the perspective of time or put support systems in place. That’s why I wrote my children’s book, ‘How 2B Happy’, in which the very first principle is that we can’t be happy all the time; we have to accept unhappiness. But we can deal with it, and discover what gifts it brings.

 In my last two posts, I’ve been talking about synchronicity, and needless to say several blog posts on dreams and depression have come to my attention this week. Toko-pa has written a passionate piece here, in which she talks about ‘the intelligence of our melancholia’ http://toko-pa.com/2007/03/08/bleed-joyfully-a-fresh-view-of-depression/#comment-497 You might also enjoy this piece from ispeakindreams http://ispeakindreams.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/the-beauty-of-our-dreams-healing-within-dreams/

Has a period of depression ever led to a breakthrough for you?