The predicted weather was cold, with possible snow and hail. Even so, we set off, determined to make the most of the chance to meet up outside and walk with others, following the ‘Rule of Six’.
Although it did turn out to be cold, there was no sign of snow or hail. We walked through glorious countryside in bright sunshine and completed an 8-mile circuit. Not bad considering the effects of ‘lockdown winter’ with gyms closed and the impetus to exercise at home starting to dwindle. We needed those hills, that fresh air, that blast to the senses.
With 38 years between the youngest of the group, at 27, and me, at 65, our walking speeds were variable. Our younger friends waited patiently at regular intervals for us to catch up – me and my partner plodding along at a steady 2 miles an hour. We’re not going to break any records but we’re not aiming to. What we do want to do, however, is maintain reasonable levels of fitness as we progress through our sixties and beyond.
We’ve both struggled with long-term depression but also both never given up on pushing ourselves – and now, sometimes, each other – to keep making that effort – massive though it is – to maintain an exercise regime, in one form or another.
For me it’s tended to be a bit ad hoc – I find routine difficult – although for years I did cycle to work regularly. It wasn’t a long distance but there was quite a lot of uphill on the way back. I often cursed at the end of the day when I wished – how I wished – that I’d driven there in the car. But I’m sure it’s helped me a lot and I’m glad of it now. Glad to have kept going, pushing those pedals.
Every so often I used to try jogging. I found it hard to psyche myself up, sometimes got into a bit of a ‘stride’, and even completed a 10K run once. Jogging wasn’t for me though, long term. My knees complained and I had to call it a day on that one.
There were times in my life when I simply set off from home and walked until my heels bled. Not recommended but at least it got me out and active.
In later years I did volunteering involving hard labour with a sledge hammer (and called it a holiday!). For that, I set myself training targets, carrying a back-pack loaded up to 50lb in weight with books, tins of beans and bags of flour. A good friend used to come with me on some of these training walks, to make sure that I didn’t fall backwards off the hillside – with that load I would never have stopped until I landed at the bottom!
Now, I enjoy our leisure walks – sometimes with friends, sometimes just the two of us. We’re planning to do Helvellyn later this year. Must get into training again soon.
After grinding to a halt last year (when I was 64), I’ve had 12 months of resting and recuperating. It’s been great to have no time pressures, be able to catch up on household jobs and generally just ‘chill’. However, I still don’t feel like giving up on my working life altogether and have just started a new job. It’s part-time and temporary – just for a few weeks – and has tested my ability to keep calm in the face of new technology (use of a smart phone is an intrinsic part of the job). With some effort I’ve been able to keep my anxiety levels within manageable parameters – breathing through the stress and repeating my ever-faithful affirmation of ‘I choose to be peaceful and calm; everything is unfolding as it should’. There have been times when I have felt anything other than peaceful and calm but I seem to be settling in. It’s tiring, but I’m doing it.
When I was going through the worst of my breakdown, one of things I hung on to, to haul myself through, was the knowledge of how hard I’d worked when I was younger – dealing with anxiety without any coping mechanisms for a long time – to develop work skills and experience. I was determined that all that hard work would not go to waste.
I do believe that if more people had more help with anxiety and associated difficulties when they were younger, it would help to avoid the devastation that having a breakdown can bring. As a society we still have a long way to go before we can consider ‘inclusion’ a reality rather than a pretend game.
That does by no means mean that I now consider myself to be an ‘expert’ (whatever that means). However, for a long time I struggled to even form them, at any meaningful level, never mind knew what to do once I finally decided to jump in at the deep end, at the age of 24.
Up till then my life had been a relationship desert. Unlike my peers – who all seemed naturals to me – I just didn’t seem to have what it took. I had extreme social anxiety and – though I didn’t know then – depression, associated with an eating disorder and a fear of being laughed at, humiliated, rejected. So I put up walls to protect myself from what I, essentially, most wanted and needed.
Apart from an occasional snog and a few dates that did nothing to stir my emotions or hormones I thought I would never meet the man of my dreams, fall in love, be happy…
Of course, the idea of meeting someone took itself into the realms of romantic fantasy, giving me no experience of managing the reality. When I did ‘meet’ someone who I had a strong connection with, it was from a distance as he was with someone else. The distance got even greater when he went off to the other side of the world to be with her, and I lost my sense of hope.
I ended up marrying someone I hardly knew because he asked me! I’d just lost my job and I had been floundering without any sense of direction since leaving college two years previously – the eating disorder made it hard to concentrate on anything other than finding ways to take my mind off food – so it seemed as if fate had finally decided to go my way. Foolish, I know now. Or was it? Maybe it was, essentially, the only way I was going to learn to swim, by jumping in at the deep end. We lasted three and a half years before he said he wanted us to separate as I was ‘holding him back’.
It would have been good if we could each have gone our separate ways and found happiness with someone else. I did (after I had learnt many more hard lessons in life over many subsequent years). Sadly, he passed away while still a young man, although he had lived life in his own ebullient gregarious way up to then.
At the time when we split up I could have done with some counselling, to help me explore and start to work through all the issues that were suddenly thrown up in my head and in my heart. It was the 1980s then, though, and I hadn’t even heard of counselling.
Instead, I stumbled, crumbled, and fell into another relationship with a lifetime of unresolved ‘stuff’ still bubbling away. It can’t have been a good experience for my partner, I realise that now, although we both tried to make it work, and support each other in our different ways.
My internal volcano finally exploded when, after a joint business venture collapsed, my partner went off with someone else. The extremes of my emotions and state of mind from there went off the Richter scale and I had a breakdown (to put it mildly). I’d wanted eventually to start a family but, in my late thirties by then, I entered a period of significant instability on all levels.
I had to pull out all the stops to pull myself back from the brink and into functionality over a prolonged period and have only just completed a cycle of recovery that I started over 25 years ago.
During that time, I’ve reached out to and found many different ways of learning to live and love.
At one point I trained as a volunteer bereavement counsellor. The main model that the training was based on was the principle that, with support and time and commitment, the sense of loss doesn’t go away or get smaller, but your life can grow bigger around it. This resonated with me, and I’ve found that it has helped me to reach out and grow into an awareness of life that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t had to learn how to find a way through.
For over five years I’ve been in a relationship with a lovely, loving, funny, kind, clever man who also struggled with relationships when he was younger. (I think there must be a lot of us around.)
Even so, the final stages of my recovery cycle have not been easy; I have had to do more than tie up a few loose ends and threads. ‘Out of the blue’ my brain took me to places where it had stored memories from 40 years ago, locked away because they were too painful for me to bear before.
I’m well on the way to having worked through them now, thanks to having the loving arms and heart of my partner to help me feel the sadness that I needed to feel; that I wished I could have felt at the time, for myself and those I was involved with.
The sadness was worse, for having stayed so buried for so long as extreme trauma that hit me during my breakdown period: trauma associated with decisions I’d made; paths I’d taken. Edvard Munch’s painting, ‘The Scream’, just about sums up how I felt inside at that time; and then some; and then some more. The collage I made in 2001 presents my own version of that scream; the scream of the agonised soul.
Recently, I’ve come across The Hawaiian Healing Art of Ho’oponopono – Forever Conscious. It’s said that things come to us in our lives when we most need them and/or are receptive to them. I most certainly needed this and it was an utter revelation to me. It has helped me to heal from feelings of guilt that have haunted me for decades, all rooted in the difficulties I had in forming, managing and ending relationships in the past.
People had tried to reach me, and I had tried to reach out to them. Ultimately, though, I needed to reach within myself – however long it took – and find what I needed to find. I’ve been fortunate to be able to finally reach that goal from within the protective space of a loving relationship.
I think I’ve learnt a lot about relationships, including knowing how important it is to keep working at them, and know that there is always more to learn. Most of all though, I’m loving now being able to love and be loved. It is worth working for, however long it takes.
We all know this and are likely to have had direct experience of these benefits.
Why, then, can it still be so difficult to find the motivation to exercise?
It’s an issue that I’ve struggled with all my life, experiencing barriers associated with body image when I was younger. I knew swimming was good exercise but would only ever go to a swimming pool or wear a swimsuit on a beach if I’d starved myself to be thin enough to feel able to do that. And even then, I felt morbidly self-conscious about how I looked. It took a long time and a lot of working through masses amount of personal ‘stuff’ before I could stop worrying and start enjoying swimming. My partner and I even go wild swimming now, and it feels wonderful.
I tried jogging, but always found it so hard to build myself up to a regular routine. Lacking in willpower and discipline some people might say. Struggling with severe depression, anxiety and low self-esteem was the real reason. I’ve continued to struggle ever since, but have also never given up. Now 65, I’ve been doing on-line exercise classes, including yoga and pilates during lockdown. Last summer we did some cycling around our local lanes. We still both find that it’s an effort to go out, sometimes, but give each other a push and/or moral support when we need it. Whatever it takes.
What’s the alternative? An inactive old age with all the complications that brings?
I’ve always found it difficult to go to a gym or to exercise classes after work. Just getting through a day involved such a major effort for me. So I looked for ways to combine exercise into my daily routine. Cycling to work meant that I often turned up looking like a drowned rat, but it did help.
Even so, I continued to struggle with depression, and continued to find it hard to motivate myself to exercise enough to help it lift on anything more than a temporary basis. I felt like the only way I could sustain the ‘lift’ would be to train as if I was an Olympic athlete. I have neither the physique nor the talent to be anything remotely akin to athletic and, like most people, have had to commit a significant amount of my time to earning a living and keeping up with the usual day to day domestic activities.
There were times as well when I felt that the more I exercised, the deeper my depression went, after the initial ‘buzz’ fell away.
I continued to have to do a lot of work to try and shift it, with exercise being one of a number of tools and techniques that I’ve tried and tested over the years. It has been, and continues to be, a lifetime endeavour. I think that this is in part because of the way emotions are stored in the body, a matter which has been increasingly recognised and written about including the following article by Sean Grover (2018):
For years, I’ve made a study of where people tend to store their unwanted emotions. Certainly, not all body aches or illnesses are psychosomatic. However, as I studied people’s bodily reactions to stress, recurring patterns emerged.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Repression
Fear is the driving force behind repression, and is frequently rooted in your past. Repression is often necessary, particularly when you feel overwhelmed or experience trauma. But an overdependence on repression fuels psychosomatic symptoms and self-destructive patterns.
In his article in Psychology Today, Sean Grover goes on to identify the ‘Top 10 Tension Areas for Unwanted Feelings’ as:
1.Lower Back: Anger 2. Stomach & Intestines: Fear 3. Heart & Chest: Hurt 4. Headache: Loss of control 5. Neck/Shoulder Tension: Burdens 6. Fatigue: Resentments 7. Numbness: Trauma 8. Breathing Difficulties: Anxiety 9. Voice & Throat Problems: Oppression 10. Insomnia: Loss of self
I find this interesting and helpful, relating these areas to recent and past experiences.
I did a lot of work on repressed anger at one point, including going to a workshop where I was encouraged to take a lot of it out on a punch bag. The physicality of the release at the time was phenomenal (although I did go into a kind of ‘toxic shock’ afterwards, so I would not recommend anyone trying this approach without a very strong support network around them).
Some years later, experiencing stress at work, I searched out volunteering opportunities, finding an outlet by doing trail maintenance work where I could break big rocks into smaller rocks to make hardcore with a sledgehammer. I came back refreshed and invigorated. Although the effects did wear off after a while, I have so far – touch wood – not suffered from lower back problems.
Fatigue and resentments strike a chord with me – I’m so good at hanging on to them, no wonder I feel tired all the time!
So, while I’ve done a lot of work on myself to get to this point, and to feel largely positive about the position I’m in, there’s still a lot to do.
It’s often the enormity – or perceived enormity of the challenge – that puts us off dealing with it, which leads to repression, which leads to depression….
There are no easy answers or quick fix solutions, especially when difficulties are deep-rooted. I just keep reminding myself that it’s all about the next step. And the one after that. And the one after that. It does get easier. Miraculously – it feels to me – my steps feel a lot lighter, at the age I’m at now, than they did when I was young, all those years ago! Something must be working, somehow. Barriers can be overcome. It’s not easy, but it’s worth working at it, bit by bit.
In one sense, this post should just be entitled ‘Being’, because age is irrelevant.
I interact with the world essentially as a being, and don’t need a label.
On the other hand, I do have history, and the ways that I have worked through that history impact on the way that I interact with the world – and other beings in it – on a daily basis.
It isn’t always easy to put the past behind us, especially when heavily loaded with emotions associated with trauma and grief.
Accepting things that I cannot change has been a hard life lesson to learn for me, helped by meditation, affirmations, and Buddhist teachings (including one in particular by Gen Togden of the Kadampa tradition).
Not having had children is a major regret. Raising this as an issue with a therapist recently, still needing to work it through, I was met with a profoundly uncompassionate response: “So you decided not to have them then, did you?”
At one level, she was right. I made choices – decisions – that led to me being in a state of extreme mental and emotional turmoil in my late 30s and 40s. Decisions that I made as a struggling, vulnerable young woman in my 20s were mine, and I was an adult. But should I really have had to pay such a high price in later life?
Shit does happen though, and doesn’t discriminate. Thankfully, I have had previous experiences with other counsellors/therapists who’ve approached my distress with humanity and empathy.
Even so, some things take a long time to work through. Some ‘stuff’ from the past has just come up that I thought I’d put behind me, or at least wanted to. It doesn’t always work like that though, and I’m sure my brain dredged it up now because I hadn’t properly dealt with it previously.
Now I’m in a much better place than I have ever been before, living with a kind, loving, supportive, funny partner. Being 65 is a starting point for me, and it’s never too late.
If I can send out a message to anyone who’s going through personal difficulties – whether recently experienced or long-term endured – it is to say: “Don’t give up.”
We don’t always know what we’re made of until our backs are to the wall, especially if we’ve oriented towards ‘flight’ rather than ‘fight’ in early years.
Fighting for survival is a primary motivator and there is always light at the end of the tunnel. Even if you can’t see it for yourself, let someone else – a friend – see it and hold it for you until you can.
I’m only 65, and I’ve got all my life ahead of me. So have you.
I’ve spent hours – days even – cross-stitching over the last few months.
A lot of other people must have been cross-stitching too, as all the company websites I’ve bought kits from have had special messages up to say how they are coping with unprecedented demand due to the Covid crisis.
Even so, orders have arrived promptly, and been a joy to work with …
… helping me to gain a sense of being at peace with myself and the world:
There’s something so soothing about the technique of counted cross-stitch, that puts my mind at ease.
I’ve mostly made cards – and some Christmas decorations – to send to people – friends – and it’s lovely to think about these friends as I stitch away.
I’m not great on phone calls or Facebook, but stitching has become my thing. I’m going to try knitting again though, for a while. Knitting’s good too. And macramé: knotting!
At primary school I was cast as a mouse in the school play: all I had to do was say “squeak, squeak”.
The career advice I was given at secondary school was to become a librarian.
I didn’t want to become a librarian (or be a mouse) – I wanted to be able to speak.
There have been times in my life when I felt, finally, that some degree of fluency was coming through. But I’ve never quite reached the point of feeling that I could say what I wanted or needed to say, in any given situation. I think that’s why I’ve turned to writing poetry, because however much the spoken word evades me, and for whatever reason, I can express myself in poetry, one way or another. It doesn’t mean I don’t end up feeling ‘dumb’ and stupid in conversation when my brain can’t tune in to what is being said. However, in more positive moments I can also reflect on the many facets of communication, and the importance of being heard, in one way or another.
Anybody who has had depression knows that one of the most difficult things to deal with is that awful desolation that drowns you as you wake up from whatever sleep you can get.
It is an experience that you have to have had to know what it feels like, when the thought of even having to get up and get dressed, let alone do anything else, is beyond daunting.
There was a time when I could only wake up and get up by setting a first alarm clock to go off several hours beforehand, then another some time after that, and another later still. When I finally did get out of bed, my first port of call was a strong cup of coffee (appropriately named ‘Rocket Fuel’) with which I swallowed my anti-depressant tablet. Eventually I could then get dressed and ready for work.
I’ve started to struggle again with this aspect depression, after years of having trained myself to get up without too much snooze time between alarms. The fact that my partner now brings me a good strong cup of tea helps enormously, as does not having any time pressures at the moment. Even so, the tasks associated with waking up, getting up and getting dressed should not be underestimated for anyone who is suffering from depression. Like a lot of things, breaking the process down into small steps can be a good strategy. First one sock, and then the other.
I’m working towards being one of those people who springs out of bed in order to ‘seize the day’. Just because I’m slow to start, though, doesn’t me I don’t appreciate and value. It just means that I have to take my time to get myself (literally) geared up, even at a basic level.
This is one place (of many) where the poem in my recently posted Poetry Rule No. 9b comes in. Don’t judge a book by its cover …
Ironically, I’ve recently been feeling too tired to write about what I have wanted to write about: sleep. Until today.
Breaking the cycle of inactivity is massively difficult during a period of depression. It feels impossible to know what to do or where to start that will make any difference in any meaningful and lasting way. And then sleeplessness takes hold and so it goes on.
I still have variable experiences of being able to get to sleep, and sleep long and deep enough to feel rested. However, any current difficulties I have are nothing compared to what it was like for me, years ago, when I became addicted to sleeping pills (Triazepam).
In the end, to detox, I took myself to Turkey in the hot season, walked and sweated for miles and eventually screamed myself off them.
The process of detox itself, especially in unsupported circumstances, is very dangerous, and, to anyone contemplating taking tranquilizers of any kind, I would say, “Don’t!”.
It might be easy for me to say that now, as I did take them then and felt that I needed to – desperately – at the time. Maybe I did. But that was before I had explored all the other options and possibilities, mainly because I didn’t know about them.
There is much more awareness and access to mental health coping strategies than there used to be over twenty years ago when I was going through some extreme experiences. Meditation courses and apps, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, affirmations (I use these a lot), talking therapies, the benefits of exercise and so on. Even so, despite drawing on these approaches and applying them in my day-to-day life as best as I can, I don’t always sleep well.
Now, though, I’m much more able to sit or lie with the lack of sleep and rest into it, be patient with it, rather than going for a quick fix with all the associated draw backs. If I’m really struggling to settle I might get up, watch a bit of telly (reading is usually out of the question at these times, such is the impact of depression on my capacity to concentrate), make a cup of tea or – even better – hot chocolate. I also occasionally indulge in a glass or two of wine or a gin and tonic. (I’m conscious of the drawbacks and addictive aspects of alcohol reliance but it does sometimes do the trick; a couple of paracetamols – again as a very occasional alternative and never at the same time as alcohol – also eventually send me off.)
I’m gradually working towards having a kinder and more balanced relationship with myself, doing what I can to be good to my body and my brain. I work on being thankful, get my brain into ‘glad’ mode and accept that I am getting “there”, which is “here”, with every day a blessing.
It is much easier for the me that I am now, than the me that I was twenty years ago, to not fall back on the quick fixes, partly because I have worked hard to find out about and put self-management strategies into practice and partly because I am in a much better place on a personal level. It is much easier to get to sleep on an evening, knowing that in the morning I will wake up in my partner’s loving arms.
Maybe there was a time when I did shoot the Albatross, and paid the price. But sleep is a very gentle thing, and doing my best to let sleep slide into my soul is part of an essential process of healing.