At the turn of the Millennium, I completed a project under the Mind-Millennium Award Scheme.
My project – the Lifelines Project – involved collecting and publishing poems, pictures and self-help strategies from other people who, like me, had suffered from enduring and debilitating depression.
I had not met many of the contributors, and was amazed – honoured – that they trusted me with their personal expressions, all because of the underlying intention of reaching out in the hope of helping others.
If you, yourself, are suffering with depression, I would like to wish you well and tell you that you are not alone.”
Since then, there’s been increased awareness about mental health and how it can be improved. While there remains much to be done in society from the ‘prevent’ and ‘promote’ perspectives, being able to – and even encouraged – to talk about mental health difficulties more openly represents a start.
In my own experience, I eventually got fed up of talking – I’ve never been much good at it anyway. I knew that I needed to take action, to find ways of turning my life around, however difficult or painful that might be. And I knew it would be difficult and painful, to rebuild from a below zero level when I was in my forties.
From somewhere, somehow, I found the resolve to put my head down, prioritise, and push myself through. For a long time I concentrated on work and on developing my internal resilience. Just before I turned 60 I decided to take the plunge and commit to a relationship. I now have a much fuller and richer life than I have ever had before and I’m thankful for that.
Even so, life continues to be difficult and I still take antidepressants – probably always will. But I have other coping skills and strategies, and have also been able to recently retire, taking away work pressures that I could no longer deal with.
I wasn’t able to keep in touch with all the people who contributed to the Lifelines Project but they’ve always remained in my thoughts and I hope that they too have been able to find a way through; a way that works for each of them:
I thought it was fitting to include a poem by one of the Project contributors – Mark:
The night has been terror: depression, cold, confusion. – Ears scream.
Grey – the morning in my front-room.
A tear on my cheek and a child’s grizzle for a few seconds – From my adult form.
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.
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.
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.
“I choose to be peaceful and calm. Everything is unfolding as it should.”
Affirmations can be hard to take on faith at the best of times. At times like this – and especially with an affirmation like this – it can be even harder.
On my daily walk with my partner, in the beautiful spring sunshine and along the peaceful country lanes around where we are lucky enough to live, I’ve stopped and said this affirmation out loud, and it has helped; helped me to remind myself that I can choose to respond to any given situation in a calm and peaceful way, providing I have control of my emotions and my mind. It might be hard, but not impossible. It is something that I can keep working towards being able to do, even if I can’t do it now.
I first started to use this affirmation a few months ago, when I was struggling with some very difficult work situations and high levels of associated anxiety.
I discovered it in a slightly different form at http://thinkup.me/affirm and my thanks go to the author of that article. (5 Recommended Positive Affirmations for Anxiety by Yvonne Williams Casaus, 26 December 2017)
After struggling with anxiety and depression for many years, I keep thinking that I’ve beaten them, only to be hit again by another wave.
The difference, though, between when I first started my personal battle with depression – in my teens – and now – in my 60s – is that I now have a well-stocked resource bank of strategies to fall back on.
Even so, the nature of the disease- and it is a dis-ease – is such that it can be hard to fall back on what we know works when we are at our lowest ebb. I also find that I no longer have the reserves of fighting energy that I used to have, but if I can at least find an affirmation that resonates with me – even on a leap of faith – then I am doing something positive to pull myself through.
The first time I came across affirmations was when I was going through a breakdown in my late thirties.
Suddenly reaching out – desperately, as I knew I was in danger of drowning and was definitely not waving – I found that there were sources of help and support around that I had never even heard about before or could imagine being available.
Counselling was one of these, meditation another, and I also came across a book called You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay (1984).
In that book , as I recall, I identified an affirmation that reflected the exact opposite of how I was feeling:
“I am the love and beauty of life in full expression.”
At the time, I was feeling like the worst wretch that ever crawled the planet. But I knew I had to do something to turn my life around and so I took on board the affirmation and kept saying it to myself again and again and again. And it worked. Not on its own, not without me doing all sort of other things at the same time and ever since, but it helped to cure my warts (literally) and set me on the path to keep working and trying, never giving up.
This brings me to some more poetry, and Poetry Rule No. 28, Stand your ground when you need to; move when you don’t
Sometimes it isn’t as bad as you think it’s going to be it isn’t even worse as you hesitate with anticipation and brace yourself to curse
Sometimes you’re presently surprised more than you thought you could be when you’re met with some small kindness unexpectedly
At times like these it’s good to be wrong in fact I would go so far as to say it’s a blessing that’s been missing for a long time so, no messing seriously
Sometimes are better than no times never wouldn’t you agree?
In case you don’t want to buy the book, or perhaps as a taster (I’m one of 12 poets in the completed work), here are my poems from the collection:
Now at the Pinnacle 14-and-a-half per cent proof point of my existence I’ve reached the Nottage Hill sub-station of my life I haven’t got a Sauvignon Blanc’s clue about what to do next other than to ‘méthode-champenoise’ my way through and hope that if the cork crumbles the bottle won’t be blue and the sieve will be fine so that just for now I can at least drink the wine
I can dance
I can dance without moving my feet at all I don’t have to do the foxtrot or quickstep my way to any ball I can cry without moving my lips I can laugh without making a sound all I have to do is know that the earth is flat, it isn’t round The dance is mine to make up from the music of the wind a sense of something swirling in and around my mind I don’t need a choreographer an audience or loud applause I just need to dance in my own way and then I’ll dance some more I can dance without moving my feet at all on and on and on and on it is my dance my life my call
Here’s to Wealth!
Cheers my dear to the love that you bring into my life and though I never want to be your wife I want to share with you all the good things that life brings
I love it when you sing as I know it comes from within your soul and as we learn together to love each other something magical unfolds
The trees without leaves that you hung around my neck and from my ears help to take away all my fears of things undone of words unsaid the sadness of never nurturing a child upon my breast
Where once was hope and then despair becomes a sense of stillness in the air and from that place of breathing and of wings comes freedom to wonder and wander into the rich realms of being together feeding the birds with the wealth of our love
Heading for instant gratification no time to waste or spare I take my mug into the kitchen only to find a queue of people there
Halted, suddenly, empty cup in hand my thoughts spill over into the needs of others heads bowed or lifted as we together stand
I only needed coffee and soon the queue was gone my waiting time was over but for someone else it had only just begun
I’m also proud of the back cover copy that I wrote for the book:
A relationship break-up can be a difficult experience at any age. It isn’t always easy to see the opportunity beyond the heartache, and even less easy to find ways of putting the experience into words.
The triumphs of Maria Stephenson’s emergence into a new life as a writer and teacher are embodied in her collection of ‘Poetry for the Newly Single Forty Something’ (2017). Maria didn’t just stop at publishing her own collection though. She inspired others to explore their creative approaches to the theme, leading to this exciting anthology, which is more than the sum of its poems.
The words of each poet paint a picture of part of their own unique life story. Demonstrating diverse responses to life and writing challenges, threads of commonality emerge and unite.
What are you waiting for? Dive in, explore, share in the joy of words and wonders of life that these writers have explored and shared. These poems aren’t just about being newly single, or about being forty something, they are about being – essentially – human.
The reason for my pride is partly because I think it stands well as a piece of writing in its own right (and even being able to credit myself with that is a remarkable* achievement in its own right), and partly because of what it represents for me in terms of having come through what I’ve come through, still fighting, still writing, still reaching out.
* https://iamremarkable.withgoogle.com/ (#IamRemarkable is a Google initiative empowering women and underrepresented groups to celebrate their achievements in the workplace and beyond.)
It’s not my real name, but ‘Glad’ is better than sad, and I’ve worked hard in my life to be Glad, not sad.
I’ve recently started decorating my house – our house. This may not seem like an amazing revelation or achievement, but it is for me. I’m 64 years old and have had a long struggle to be able to enjoy doing the everyday things that I can focus on now.
It’s taken about fifty years of unlearning and then re-learning how to be me. Poetry hasn’t been the only vehicle I’ve used for recovery and discovery, but it has been a regular companion along the way.
As a teenager – like many teenagers since and still – I developed a very negative self-image of myself, inside and out.
Out Out, out into the world That’s where I wanted to go What I wanted to do When I was young But when I looked in the mirror All I could see Was an ugly, unattractive body Looking back at me
I went on a diet from the age of about 15 that lasted for the next 30 years or so, and affected every aspect of my life (or more accurately non-life that it had become). I didn’t think I had anything to offer as a person, didn’t know how to form relationships, and put all my energy into losing weight. At least if I was thin, that would be something. Except it led to nothing, because it wasn’t solid ground on which to build a life. It was the best I could do at the time, but I did eventually realise, after I’d had a major breakdown in my late thirties, and was trying to get myself going again in my forties, that I needed to eat, to give me energy, to be able to live. I had to finally, eventually, push through that awful sense of self-loathing that I associated with putting on weight in order to emerge as a (literally as well as generally) well-rounded person with an appetite for life.
I still have to work at it, still take anti-depressants, can’t use shop changing rooms or look at myself naked in a mirror, but on the whole this does not affect my ability to enjoy my life – with my partner – and try to make the most of every day.
I can still very easily cut myself off, go into ‘zombie’ mode, more readily associate with entropy than energy, so decorating my house – however long it takes – and writing this blog – wherever it takes me – are positive signs of engagement; action rather than inaction.
I hope my poems and other musings may resonate with anyone who has struggled to find their own identity and path through life. I know now that there are endless possibilities and I hope that the following poem (in six parts) helps to show how important it is for each of us to find our fighting spirit:
Jacket 1 It’s there, on the chair The red fleece jacket With hood and drawstring waist That I don’t want to wear Don’t want to keep
It’s warm and soft when I put it on But far too big for me Drowned in a red sea Shapeless, I feel A baggy, saggy, faceless entity
I look at the jacket On the chair In limp, loose folds of red, and seams This isn’t the jacket of my dreams
It’s theirs to wear Not mine to keep Their tears to cry Not mine to weep
It’s there, on the chair The red fleece jacket With hood and drawstring waist That I don’t want to wear Don’t want to keep So I’ve put a price on its head To let it go free To someone who wants it But when will that be?
Jacket 2 It’s there, on the chair The red fleece jacket With hood and drawstring waist That I don’t want to wear Don’t want to keep
It’s warm and soft when I put it on But far too big for me Drowned in a red sea Shapeless, I feel A baggy, saggy, faceless entity
I look at the jacket On the chair In limp, loose folds of red, and seams This isn’t the jacket of my dreams
It’s not my layer These aren’t my lies With drawstring waist And nylon ties
It’s not my jacket They’re not my dreams These aren’t my ties They’re not my seams
So I leave the jacket On the chair To go my way While they go theirs
Jacket 3 Now it hangs upon the door That red fleece jacket That I didn’t want to wear Didn’t want to keep
It’s warm and soft when I put it on And not too big for me Warmed in a red sea Shapeless no more No baggy, saggy faceless entity
I look at the jacket On the door In limp, loose folds of red, and seams It’s not the jacket of my dreams But just a layer to keep me warm From frozen looks And glares of scorn
It is my jacket With hood and waist To wear a while From place to place