I was at the funeral of a friend yesterday. He’d died unexpectedly at the age of 67.
As it turned out, the day of the funeral was the day of my 66th birthday.
A funeral isn’t the usual expected place to be on a birthday, nor is it where you would expect to receive an unexpected birthday present. But that is exactly what happened to me yesterday, at my friend Bill’s funeral. It was a gift given to me by Bill’s grieving wife, Deb, in words that she spoke in celebration of her husband’s life.
Deb spoke about the ancient Japanese art and philosophy of Kintsugi. Kintsugi is about celebrating imperfection; not trying to hide what is broken but recognising the place of mending as a thing of beauty in its own right, and highlighting the mend with gold. She referred to her husband as ‘pure gold’. He was. As was her gift to me in what she said, using words and with passion that I cannot even begin to emulate, nor do I think that I should even try. They were words that could only be spoken by a wife, grieving the loss of the love of her life.
I do, however, want to acknowledge those words in this post, feeling broken as I continue to feel inside as I continue to hope and try to heal. I realise now that I don’t have to aim to heal back to how I was before I was broken; that the broken parts and the process of healing – that includes reaching out to others who are also struggling – are the pure gold of life. So I’ll continue to live it in the best way that I can, cracks and all.
As it turns out, I’ve been making some pots recently that are basically balls of solid clay that may well fall apart in the kiln. I now hope that they do – so that I can mend them in the Kintsugi way. Amazingly enough, I also got another birthday present yesterday – from another friend. It was a Kintsugi kit! How weird and wonderful is that?
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.
Grey island you spin and swirl around me (or is it the sea?) as I sit and wait for my thick-headed brain to clear which it does almost, but elusively and all too briefly teasingly still tense tension immense
Four seagulls soar one sits probably shits (or is that on the wing?)
Thrift, rock, heather purple, black, yellow, mauve green, grey, white weather wild mild quite
Walking, talking, inwardly I sit (still) and wait for my thick-headed brain to clear and allow me to feel the joy of the sea and the splendour of the trees and everything around me
So, I sit (on a rock) and wait for my thick-headed brain to clear and know that someday soon it will be free hopefully
A quarter of a century after I started my self-directed journey of recovery from a complete personal breakdown, it would be easy to think at this stage that I never will get that sense of mental clarity that I have been seeking.
I hoped by now that I could have been sailing instead of struggling to find the energy to get through each day in a remotely positive way.
There are significant differences though, between then – when I started out – and now – when I’ve arrived at a particularly low down point, wondering how on earth I’m going to summon up the motivation and momentum to start going ‘up’ or ‘forward’ again.
The most significant difference for me is that now I’m in a loving relationship. My partner and I care for and about each other in ways that make us both feel good. He suffers from depression too, so we often alternate in terms of who most needs support from the other at any one time. We’ve both had almost catastrophic life experiences to contend with in the past, both just come through by the skin of our teeth, both had to learn to trust again – often the most difficult thing of all, including trusting ourselves as well as each other. And we’re both now thankful that we’ve found each other. ‘Together Forever’ is our motto. We want to make the most of the time that we have – both now in our 60s – and that, in itself, is a motivator. At the same time, I’m still feeling profoundly exhausted and know that I need to do some more work on myself to pull out of this and finally put the traumas of the past behind me.
I know that it’s important to sometimes push myself and at other times do nothing. Doing nothing is hard as it brings with it the fear that it will become a permanent state and that I will vegetate from doing nothing to being nothing. At my age, fear of dementia also comes in to the mix. But in the depths of depression, doing anything at all feels like just too much, so where do I start?
I keep coming back to affirmations. Affirmations, some gentle regular exercise, healthy eating, not too much alcohol. All sensible things.
The affirmations I’ve identified for myself at this time are for depression and hearing problems. While I don’t really have hearing problems as such – other than age-related deterioration – I do have problems with ‘itchy ears’ and I have also had problems in the past with being heard.
I set about learning and practising active listening skills when I trained as a volunteer bereavement counsellor – it must have been about 20 years ago now. I’ve found those skills invaluable in different jobs and roles that I’ve held, although more latterly I’ve found it increasingly hard to concentrate. Active listening, by definition, means giving another person full attention. I think my body and brain have been telling me to give myself full attention for a change; had I ‘listened’ to what they were telling me earlier, I might not have arrived at the state I’m at now, although by the nature of cycles, they do have to go full turn.
Anyway, the affirmations that I’ve found, to say to myself when I can and when I need to, are:
“I move beyond other people’s fear and limitations. I create my own life.”
When I say each of these, at the very low ebb that I’m at now, I get a sense of uplift in my spirit, even if my body and brain are running well behind. I hold on to the belief that they will catch up though. Eventually.
Oh, and of course writing – something, anything – can be therapeutic as well. I’m going to keep writing, and affirming. And washing up, and doing a bit of gardening …