Friday, 5 June 2015

Coping with Anxiety and Depression: A Frank Conversation Between Two Lovers

I recently wrote about my history with self-harm after making the decision to be more open about my experiences with mental health issues. Since blogging and making videos I have learned that talking about my own challenges has been one of the most helpful things for those who read and watch my content. Being able to relate to someone’s personal struggles and learn more about the steps they took to deal with them is valuable when you’re designing your own strategy for healing and release. I’ve been with my boyfriend Dani for three years now and he has made two appearances on my channel which you can check out here and here. He is the love of my life and I adore him so much. He has dealt with anxiety and depression for most of his life and also battled a severe eating disorder a few years ago.

Last year Dani’s depression and anxiety resurfaced in a major way and he had to leave his job and start another course of therapy. This was incredibly difficult for us to deal with as a couple and although we are in a much better place now, the effects of resurfacing mental health issues can be stressful and scary for all parties involved. It’s important to be given access to a range of coping mechanisms and ideas. I think it’s important that we discuss these kinds of issues in the spiritual and personal development communities, particularly in our online spaces which so often seem to be awash with positive affirmations and wondrous realisations but bereft of much support and realism for those tackling mental health issues.

I decided to record a discussion between Dani and I – half interview, half spontaneous dialogue – and transcribe it for my blog. I love to find new creative ways to play with my blog content and this was incredibly enjoyable. In this transcript you will find discussion about ways to cope with mental illness, the connection between recovery and spiritual practice, the issue of taking medication for mental health issues and other bits and pieces. I have edited some of our rambling so that things are kept as relevant and easy to digest as possible. Happy reading and thank you for being present.

Me: I wanted to start by asking you how long you think you’ve struggled with anxiety and depression for.

Dani: Probably since I was around five years old.

Me: I remember you mum telling me that you were exhibiting anxious tendencies from around that age..

Dani: Yeah, I had problems with going to school and with fitting in generally. I was a weird child and my teacher used to put me in the corner a lot which didn’t help my self-esteem. I was ‘the fat kid’ in my class at primary school. My mum took me out of that school because I was obviously going through serious problems but the head teacher was unhelpful and didn’t seem to care. I suffered mainly with separation anxiety – I didn’t want to be away from my mum. Anxiety and depression were taboo then and they’re still taboo now; I was unfairly treated by the teachers at school. They didn’t try to understand.

Me: Loads of people have bad memories of school. Do you have bad memories of junior school and high school?

Dani: Do you know what? When my mum put me in a new school I was happier because they were more caring and the building was just down the road from my house so I didn’t have so much separation anxiety. But I still wasn’t very confident and I had a lot of problems. I managed to find interests.. But it was hard to concentrate in class and I’d disappear off into my own little world and then get into trouble for not listening. Things got bad again in high school though. Bullying.. That was really difficult. I put a brave face on it. I remember that I got really ill in my first year of high school with an ear infection and I exaggerated it for ages so that I didn’t have to go back for weeks.

Me: I did that too! I was prone to tonsillitis and I used to milk it so that I didn’t have to go back for ages. School was crap. Some people say it’s ‘the best years of your life.’ I just don’t understand that at all..

Dani: No. Sartre was right when he said, ‘Hell is other people’. School was hell for me. But I started to find the other weirdos after a while and we formed a tribe.

Me: Did you start coming into your own, style-wise and stuff?

Dani: Yeah, and my music teacher realised that I had an affinity for music. So I started playing the saxophone, I taught myself bass guitar, I messed around with the drums, I worked out the keys on the keyboard. My dad always had organs and hi-fis around so I inherited my interest in sound and music from him. Music was a great outlet.

Me: I think the music you listen to saves you too, at that age. For me, the music I listened to when I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen.. I mean we were likes moths around a flame. I started going to metal gigs and I’d meet other people and they were always the weirdos and outcasts at their schools too. By that age we all had no fucks to give – we had started to embrace our individuality and we formed a community. It was partly music that saved me from any danger of trying to seek other people’s approval at that age..

Dani: Yeah, definitely.

Me: When was the first time you had a discussion with your mum about your anxiety rather than it being an unspoken thing?

Dani: Probably around the age of fifteen.

Me: Do you think that labelling it as ‘anxiety’ helped you to control it or deal with it?

Dani: Well I ended up going to see a child counsellor as a result of that discussion and they put me on Citalopram (an antidepressant). It didn’t really help my concentration at school but it did help me to feel more calm and it curbed the depression and anxiety. Seeing a counsellor was kind of helpful but kind of not.. After that I didn’t see a professional again until 2010, so that’s a massive gap with no professional help.

Me: You mentioned that the anti-depressant helped you in a way. In the spiritual community there are certain groups who are very ‘anti’ mood-stabilising medication.. There are memes that go around the internet which include beautiful scenes of greenery and nature emblazoned with the words, ‘This is my therapy’ or ‘nature is my therapy’. For a lot of people with mental health problems it gives off this impression that if you’re not utilising nature and spiritual connection then you’re doing it wrong, you’re missing something, you should just be able to go out and hug and tree and run over the rolling hills.. I’ve heard people say that they have seen these memes and thought, ‘That’s offensive. I’m not missing some kind of spiritual chip in my head because I need actual therapy or meds.

Dani: I think that meme represents a kind of flippant elitism. Fair enough if it works for some people, but for them to say to others, ‘You don’t need this chemical to make you feel happy’ is entirely inappropriate and also could be quite fucking dangerous.

Me: Yeah it is dangerous because it’s a form of peer pressure.

Dani: Yeah, and it’s completely unfounded. Anti-depressants aren’t everything, but they’ve helped me.

Me: I have been helped by mood-stabilising drugs too.. They helped me when I was in crisis and that’s the point of them most of the time.

Dani: You have to utilise other forms of therapy too..

Me: Yeah, medication might be right for someone, that’s fine, but meds alone don't provide the whole package, in my opinion. You usually need talking therapy or some other kind of help or focus alongside the drugs.

Dani: That meme you mentioned which uses quite a clich├ęd vision of ‘nature’ is quite short-sighted. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for depression for anyone. It’s the same with medication – it makes some people worse, it makes some people better. But the attitude behind memes like that could inadvertently stop someone from taking their meds and that person could then commit suicide.

Me: What’s your opinion of the idea that any medications you use to help you with a mental health issue are only prolonging a problem which needs to be dealt with in a spiritual way, for example by communing with the earth, getting back in touch with your body, having transpersonal experiences, ritual, meditation, mindfulness and so on?

Dani: Granted, that’s important too. But why does it have to be one or the other? Chemical solutions and spiritual solutions can be combined. Spiritual focus can augment your recovery, absolutely. But to say, ‘There is no chemical solution to a spiritual problem’ is dangerous and elitist. If we’ve learned anything from our past history as a species it’s that a one-size-fits-all ideology causes disaster. Spiritual healing and medical treatment are their own separate fields and they can both be respected.

Me: Sometimes I think there’s an attitude in the spiritual community that you need to get rid of anything to do with traditional or Western medicine in order to follow the true path towards spiritual healing but that’s bollocks – you can do both. Like people who are going through chemotherapy for cancer also do lots of complimentary stuff. The idea that they must leave the mainstream treatments behind in order to fully commit to the spiritual stuff and dietary stuff is a form of spiritual snobbery which is killing people.. It may well be appropriate for some cancer patients to reject traditional treatments and no one should be forced to treat their cancer in a way which doesn't feel right for them. But this insistence that Western medicine is 'the enemy' is killing people without a doubt.

Dani: I agree.

Me: Let’s talk about being suicidal. I know you’ve suffered with suicidal ideation and that you’ve come close to killing yourself in the past – can you talk about that?

Dani: It’s a strange thing. I struggled with it then, I struggle with it now. Feeling suicidal feels like being lost. You’re in your own bubble. You’re in a cloudy, dark bubble and there are days when it’s like a wave over you and there’s no solution except thinking about what’s on the other side. You can go through periods of researching methods of suicide, what’s painless, safe and guaranteed..

Me: Would you say that a big deterrent was worrying about surviving a suicide attempt?

Dani: Yeah, but also envisioning the grieving process of your friends and family. If there is such a thing as infinite consciousness or going back into the earth or ‘source’ or an afterlife then would you have to witness people’s anguish or feel it somehow? That can deter you. I mean, when the initial wave of suicidal thoughts passes and you feel a bit better, normally after waking up, you might look at the book you’re reading and think, ‘There’s a lot to learn.. There’s a lot to stay here for.' But the thing is that suicidal thoughts come in a series of dips. They come and go so frequently that people get to the point of thinking, ‘I’m so tired of feeling like this, I’m just going to do it.’ At that point you’re not thinking straight. It’s like a million voices going through your head at once. There’s so much traffic. Imagine a busy street in a city – a lot of cacophony and anguish and you can feel everyone’s sadness and melancholy. That’s the point when you want to end your life.

Me: After your first breakdown in 2010 you went to counselling for a long period. Did your counsellor give you many tools for coping with the suicidal urges?

Dani: There’s only so much someone can tell you when it comes to that. I think a lot of psychologists and counsellors would testify to that. The patient in question ultimately makes that decision. Professionals can give you some tools for mindfulness or reframing, but it’s up to you to implement them. Psychiatry and psychology are still evolving all the time though.. It’s also about whether or not you resonate with the professional and can talk to them. But the best trained psychologist with a degree from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale – they can be amazing at what they do but in the end, only you can save yourself. The statistics for suicide are going up and up. It’s about finding what’s right for you. Everyone’s different. Some people with depression don’t get suicidal thoughts often. But if they are regular, they’re very tiring. One day it can get the better of you.

Me: I’ve known a few people whose parents and siblings have committed suicide and for most of them it was apparently after a long fucking battle to stay alive. In the end they just got sick of it.

Dani: That’s why it’s important for those who are dealing with those feelings to seek help as soon as possible. Unfortunately in this country it’s a lot more difficult to get professional help now. In 2010 when I had my first breakdown it didn’t take long to get seen. This time when I was struggling it took almost a year to get seen and that’s frightening because not everyone has an amazing support system like I do. Unfortunately if the government continue with mental health funding cuts there will be more tragedies.

Me: I absolutely agree. People just don’t feel seen anymore when they have mental health problems.. They don’t have access to the services they need. The health service is being squeezed and it just can’t give people what it needs to give people anymore. Meanwhile we spend untold millions on weapons and wars.

Dani: Yeah, exactly. I mean, if you can afford it you can get a psychiatrist and a therapist, no problem.

Me: Yeah, so it’s about money. It’s about the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. It’s becoming like America.

Dani: Absolutely.

Me: Do you think that having a spiritual practice or focus would make it easier to cope with depression and anxiety? Like waking up every morning and meditating or having a goddess that you pray to? In positive psychology studies have been done that show that people who live some kind of spiritual practice are better able to cope with the challenges that life brings. However there is a caveat to that. Some of the researches who have published such studies have made the valid point that when you have a spiritual focus you’re far more likely to have a spiritual community around you, either in person or online. So it could be the sense of community and group purpose that fuels the sense of wellbeing rather than the spirituality itself. But either way, it works.

Dani: Either way it works, so there’s no problem there at all.

Me: My feeling is that the best thing for problems like depression and anxiety is a sense of connection to Self, a sense of connection to the world and a schedule or routine to follow. Spiritual practice gives all of those things. Or a regular exercise practice would do just as well. Something that gets you into your body and into life and takes you out of the cyclical narcissism which mental health issues can sometimes cause. I’ve seen the improvement in you since you’ve been following a set schedule for your week - you’ve been doing better. Your moods have been more leveled out. It’s that sense of purpose.

Dani: Yeah, true. Going back to what you were saying about a spiritual practice – that term is multifaceted. It doesn’t have to mean meditation or whatever.

Me: I agree. When we went to see that talk by Nile Rogers, he said that music is his spirituality.

Dani: Exactly. Reading, studying something, making music, listening to music – they are forms of devotion for me. But when you have chronic depression the problem is finding the motivation to get going. It’s creating the momentum.

Me: I think it’s important for people with depression, anxiety or any other problem like that to know that there’s no secret to finding the motivation. There’s no short cut. It is hard. But you just need to do it. It's like if you’re procrastinating over something.. There’s no secret to solve that. You’ve just got to fucking do it. There’s no need to make it hyper complex in your mind. You’ve just got to put one foot in front of the other in the end. It got the point in my journey where it was like, 'Make a change or you're going to end up killing yourself.' It becomes abundantly clear that those are your only two choices. You have to put the wheels into motion first, and take ‘baby steps’. When you’re really depressed, having a wash or making yourself some lunch or a cup of tea is massive. So start there – do that.. The other day you opened your own mail for the first time in a year. For someone with chronic anxiety who doesn’t want to deal with the outside world right now, that’s a huge achievement, and we celebrated that together. Anything that connects you to consensus reality and makes you feel like you’re a human being who can do something for yourself is massive. The other thing I would say is that just because a day starts badly or something goes wrong doesn’t mean the rest of the day is a write off. I get stuck into that feeling when I’m depressed. I think, ‘Everything’s gone wrong, fuck it!’, and it’s only 11:00 in the morning! You can claw it back! You can turn it around! Don’t write the day off before it’s even the afternoon! Depression does that to you but you’ve got to battle it.

Dani: Yeah. I'm quite a regimented, logical, strategic person who likes to follow set patterns and rules. I can be quite inflexible and get stressed if things don't make logical sense. It really helps me to go for a walk outside and just realise that everything is connected and sometimes there's random synchronicity.. 

Me: Yeah, and that is divine.

Dani: Yeah, that's divine and also it's beyond your control. So you just let go.

Me: Yeah. Watching the cycles of the seasons gives you such a good example of how to live.. Things die, things come back to life again.. You're up, you're down. It's all flow. Nature isn't in a hurry but everything has its time and everything occurs at the right moment. Things come forth again. It's all cool. 

Dani: If there's one thing that's a priori it's that things will always die and grow back. Like the sun will keep rising and setting. It's just us that are transient. 

Me: Well, on a long enough timeline the sun is also transient.

Dani: On a long enough timeline even the sun is transient, yes.


Dani and I thank you muchly for being with us on this rambling journey. We hope it helped those who need to feel less alone with their issues and who perhaps needed some other ideas or some support to get moving.

Don't forget to mess around and have some fun in whatever way you can too. That's always a good remedy..