Describing Depression

I love words. I LOVE words. And that’s so viciously ironic for someone living with Autism and mental health problems because they are so difficult to describe, to talk about, to truly put into words. I’ve talked about how much I write and how much I document (this post here) and every now and then I think, “Oh my god, I’ve got it. That’s how it feels.” And then I go to therapy or I talk to a friend or teacher and I go to describe how I’m feeling and I’m just left scrambling. Because these things are so hard to put into words.

Let’s talk about depression specifically. This one seems to have a lot of metaphors attached to it:

  • Living in darkness – With the associations between light and good and happiness and therefore the associations between darkness and bad and sadness, the connection here is obvious. It’s also a metaphor that fits with the feeling lost and directionless and not knowing how to move forward. And living in it implies a terrifying finality.
  • Winston Churchill’s black dog – We can’t know for sure what Winston Churchill’s mental health was like, whether he suffered from mental illness, from depression, but he did describe periods of great despair that he referred to as his ‘black dog,’ that came and went as it pleased. (While I can understand this metaphor, I personally really don’t like it, being the owner of the the gentlest, sweetest black dog and therefore nothing like Churchill’s description.)
  • Having a dark cloud follow you around – Weather metaphors are common in mental health, maybe it’s the all encompassing nature, maybe it’s the lack of control we have over it that makes it a fitting metaphor.
  • Being surrounded by fog – Similar to the weather metaphor, it’s uncontrollable and overwhelming. It blots out the sun, makes good indistinguishable from bad, makes it difficult to make your way forward.
  • JK Rowling’s dementors – Everyone who’s read Harry Potter knows of dementors and the effect they have on people, essentially sucking the happiness, the joy, the life out of people. JK Rowling has talked about how dementors are the embodiment of her depression, not unlike Churchill’s metaphor.

There are more, of course: everyone has their own descriptions (and they can change depending on the particular state of the depression). On which note, I thought I’d throw in a few of my own:

  • Feeling like I’m filling up with water – When I’m deep in depression, I feel like my body is filling up with water and the water level gets higher and higher until it’s reaching my mouth and nose and I start to feel like I’m going to drown in it. And sometimes it feels like something more sinister than water, like ink or oil.
  • Feeling like I’m deep underwater – Sometimes I feel like I’m in it so deep that I can’t even see the surface so I don’t even know, which way to swim. And down there, I feel so alone.
  • Having a black hole in my chest – On a day to day basis, it drags everything in, making it difficult to even know what I’m feeling before it’s gone and on bad days, it’s so strong that it can feel hard to even stand up straight.
  • Feeling like there’s a darkness inside my chest, but deeper than is physically possible for a human body – That’s the only way I can describe this sensation. I understand the dimensions of my ribcage but it feels so much deeper than that, miles deeper. And there’s a darkness there, an ache, like this incredibly deep well of misery.

I posted this on Instagram a while ago:

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“Ever since I saw @littlepineneedle’s post and the hashtag #seemyinvisible, I’ve been thinking about it and how I could visually represent the things I struggle with. But in the end, I decided just to look at how I’ve been feeling lately. My mental health is a constant balancing act but lately, my depression has been overwhelming. It feels like there’s a black hole in my chest that’s trying to suck everything in and it’s all I can do to stand up straight. Nobody can see it and that only feeds it. It’s been really inspiring to see so many people sharing their stories over the last few days. This is one of the reasons why #mentalhealthawareness is so important: it helps us to feel less alone.” (x)

I’m not entirely sure what I’m trying to do with this blog post. I guess, I’m just trying to put this thing into words.

Meltdowns, Halsey, Halsey, and Meltdowns

I’ve never really written about meltdowns before. Not long after I started writing this blog, I started taking Venlafaxine for my depression, which essentially numbed me to all my emotions. And since my meltdowns have always come from an emotional place, I basically stopped having meltdowns. But I couldn’t deal with not being able to feel anything: everything I do – writing, songwriting, relationships, choices – everything I do is based on emotion. So I came off that medication and my emotions (and my ability to think clearly) came back. But I hadn’t had any meltdowns until recently.

A couple of weeks ago, I was supposed to be going to see Halsey in London, something I’ve been looking forward to for years. Since I saw her in 2016. I love her songs – a masterclass in lyric writing, melody, production, songwriting in general – and she’s an incredible performer, one of the best I’ve ever seen. I particularly love the Badlands album: somehow the songs just make me feel brave. So I was really, really excited.

If you’ve been keeping up with my blog, you’ll know that my depression has been particularly suffocating recently and when it’s that bad, being out and around people is incredibly difficult. Sometimes talking about those emotions and the strength of them is helpful: just letting it out of my body lessens the pressure and makes it easier to cope but sometimes, like this time, it’s like a crack in the dam. It just started pouring out and I couldn’t reign it back in. I was desperate to get to this show though so I kept trying.

My Mum drove me to the station but when we got there, I couldn’t get out of the car. It was like a magnetic force preventing me from getting out of my seat, from making decisions. My Mum suggested alternative ways of doing the day but I could feel all the possible decisions and deviations spiralling away from me and I ended up shouting that I needed her to stop (all that anxiety and stress and emotion just exploded out of me). I just couldn’t. I couldn’t find the right decision but I knew when they were wrong. So my Mum said she was going to drive me to London and take me to the show. That’s the only way I was going to be able to go. So that’s what we did.

This is one kind of meltdown. There seem to be different variations of them based on the situation. Usually, I can’t do anything after having one; usually I just have to go and sleep until I feel like myself again. But my desperation to go to the show pulled me through all of that somehow. It took me over an hour to be able to think clearly and make sentences again and by the time we got to the show, I was just about functional – I could walk, I could interact with others (although I still couldn’t make eye contact with anyone) – although I felt like I was in a different dimension to everyone else: we could see each other and interact but it was like we were on different frequencies. I’m mixing my metaphors I know. Meltdowns mess with your head.

It was an amazing show. Halsey shows are unlike any other shows in my experience. She gives everything to her performance. The energy is just off the charts, her vocals were incredible, and the stage/backdrops are complete works of art. The songs I loved before, I loved even more. The songs I liked before, I loved by the end of the show. The performances and the stories she tells about them make every single song special and I will hold on to all of it forever.

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Because of the meltdown, I was in a really strange headspace: I felt far away and disconnected and kind of lost. So I couldn’t enjoy the show in the way I would have had I not had the meltdown. But I did enjoy it and looking through my photos and videos makes me so, so happy and grateful and proud that I managed to get there. And it helped somehow. I can’t really explain it but it helped. It’s like it filled in all the cracks with gold, to use a Japanese art form as an analogy.

I got home, went to bed, and got up the next day, ready to do the whole thing again, although without the meltdown (or so I thought). As an autistic person and a concert lover, I really like to go to shows twice where possible. With the lights, visuals, music, the scream, the energy expended, the energy expended getting there… I find it incredibly difficult to process everything and I get overwhelmed very quickly. It all starts to pass through me without really landing. Fortunately, the only thing I really spend money on is concerts so that is something that I am sometimes able to do.

For several days after a meltdown, I feel really, really fragile. So my Mum – my hero – said she’d come to the show again. Thank goodness she likes Halsey too.  So we drove up to London, got to the venue, and really enjoyed the show. My god, Halsey is just so good. And seeing it twice just meant that I could take in all of it and that was just so amazing. Some of my favourite moments include (I could easily list everything but I’ll try my best to just keep it to a few):

  • The opening song, ‘Eyes Closed,’ will always be special to me because of the feeling it created. The energy in the room lifted by tenfold and it was the closest thing to magic I’ve ever experienced.
  • How she left it to the crowd by shout the lyric, ‘Do you call yourself a fucking hurricane like me?’ I wasn’t expecting that and the intensity of the crowd just took my breath away.
  • The visuals for ‘Hurricane’ were the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. And during the song, she shouted, ‘London, this song is a reminder that you do not belong to anybody but yourself!’
  • The little B stage that I thought was made up of LED lights but was actually covered in water (I really have no idea how to explain it) where she and her dancer stamped and kicked water into the crowd during ‘Don’t Play.’

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  • The volume of the crowd when everyone sang along to the stripped down version of ‘Closer.’
  • The way she sat and talked to us, the story she told about ‘100 Letters,’ and how she finished by saying, ‘You only get one you in this life. Do not waste it on someone who doesn’t appreciate who you already are.’ Maybe it sounds cheesy but in the moment, it almost brought me to tears. I’m tearing up even now as I write this. The shows were just one empowering moment after another and for that, they will always be incredibly special concerts to me.
  • The beautiful flower backgrounds for ‘Now or Never.’

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There are so many more moments I could name but I’ll leave it there. They were two really incredible concerts and I feel so lucky to have experienced them.

When the show finished, I was absolutely exhausted, physically and mentally. Walking down the stairs to the venue exit was physically painful. I’d specifically bought a seated ticked because I don’t have the energy at the moment to stand for such a long period of time but there were two girls who stood for the whole thing (almost everybody sat behind them ended up standing in the aisle so that they could see – they refused to sit down or move despite the disruption they were causing) so I kept having to stand up to see. My whole body hurt by the time it was over. Apparently that’s another unexplained Autism thing: fatigue and pain and so on with no obvious cause.

We made it out of the venue and were halfway across the street – standing on the traffic island – when an ambulance less than a few feet away turned on its siren. I don’t know if I can really explain it: it’s something so deeply rooted in emotions and sensory stuff that I’m still searching for the right words. I might never find them. But the sound – the high-pitched, ear-splittingly loud sound – just completely overwhelmed me in a split second. It was like it blew a fuse in my brain and suddenly I was screaming and my knees buckled and I would’ve hit the ground if Mum hadn’t caught me. At some point the screaming turned into crying and shaking and somehow my Mum got me onto the tube, back to the car, and home to my bed and my cats. It took most of the journey before my brain reengaged and I could think in complete sentences but even then I couldn’t talk. It just took too much energy.

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We got home, went to bed, and I spent the next few days recovering. In truth it took me over a week to feel like myself again and to process and commit to memory the amazing moments from the concert before the meltdown, before my brain shut down. It was a lot to make sense of. Meltdowns are traumatic and I don’t use that word lightly. I will write more about them, when I’m in a more stable, more composed place. I’m more than a bit all over the place at the moment. But this page here is an amazing resource so do have a look at that if you want to know more about meltdowns (and shutdowns).

And just in case:

Thank you Halsey (I never know whether to think of you as Halsey or as Ashley). Thank you for an amazing show and a treasured experience. It might’ve been a rough weekend but the shows were worth the meltdowns. Concerts make me feel alive, make me feel real. You gave me that and I’m really grateful.

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My Experiences with Therapy

Going to therapy hasn’t always been easy. I feel so, so lucky to have such an amazing therapist now but I had a lot of difficult experiences before I started seeing her. So I thought I’d share some of those experiences. Maybe they’ll be helpful.

After many, many appointments with my GP, I was finally referred to the local NHS Wellbeing service but the session didn’t go well. At this point in time, my anxiety was so bad that I couldn’t talk to people I didn’t know. I just couldn’t. Answers to questions would form in my mind but I couldn’t force them up my throat. So I sat there, in tears, while the doctor tried to get my Mum out of the room and told me he ‘wouldn’t’ help me if I didn’t talk. I don’t want to rant but I WAS STRUGGLING WITH A MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEM. I wanted desperately to be able to talk about it but I couldn’t. I don’t remember much about that appointment but I do remember standing in the street afterwards, shaking and crying and screaming and swearing. I couldn’t understand why no one was helping me when there was so clearly something wrong.

My second attempt at therapy was a bit better. I started Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) with a really lovely therapist. She was very patient and very open to working around the anxiety that kept me from talking. She was also happy to have my Mum in the room: it helped my anxiety and meant she could provide information. Slowly I started to trust her and started answering questions myself. But it was exhausting, bone achingly exhausting. As hard as we worked, I didn’t feel like we were making any progress and it was too hard to go through that to make no progress. I really liked her and I could tell that she was a really good therapist but the approach wasn’t right for me. I found the format too rigid. In simple terms, CBT is about breaking down your problems and then trying to create change in those areas. I felt, and still do feel, that my problems are too murky for a short stint of CBT. I know now that many of my problems originate from my Autism and the fact that it went undiagnosed for so long but even with that knowledge, the difficult things still feel overwhelmingly huge. I can see CBT being useful for a specific anxiety. For example, we tried to work on my anxiety around making phone calls. But I think the reason it didn’t work is that it wasn’t an isolated problem; it was a piece in a much bigger puzzle. I don’t think you can solve that sort of problem if you don’t know what’s causing it. Plus, being rational about what you’re struggling with in the controlled setting of therapy and being rational when it’s overwhelming you are very different things. CBT sort of assumes that you can still apply the skills you’ve learnt in therapy regardless of how you’re feeling, which can feel impossible, especially if you live with really powerful emotions. But maybe that’s just my perception.

The next thing we tried was Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), recommended by a family member. In the few months between finishing CBT and starting EMDR, my anxiety had sky rocketed so starting a new therapy was really hard. It was so bad that I actually never spoke to the guy I worked with. But despite that, and my difficulty with eye contact, communicating with him was easier than it had been with previous therapists. He was fantastic. He accepted my difficulty speaking and suggested writing on a whiteboard. I considered that and it felt possible so that’s what we did. He asked me questions and I replied, scribbling as fast as I could. It worked. And to take the pressure off, we would spend part of the session on the floor, playing dominoes while he asked me questions. I felt absolutely safe there. It was incredibly strengthening to have someone accept my anxieties as they were, to have someone recognise that I wasn’t just being difficult, that I was genuinely struggling with something really hard. And although it didn’t turn out to be the right thing for me, the sessions are still really important to me. For several months, we worked hard. We tried. I felt supported. And even though I didn’t ever speak, I did once sing for him and he almost cried. That was a pretty big moment.

After that, I didn’t go to therapy for a while. There was a lot of life stuff going on and there just wasn’t the time to find someone new. But I did start seeing a new psychiatrist. He prescribed me Phenelzine (which I’ve previously written about) and we spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was causing my problems. I guess it was a type of therapy. We went through my history and analysed my emotions, trying to find a diagnosis. The medication helped and we managed the side effects but it still took a long time. When my university said that they couldn’t help unless I had a diagnosis, I pushed for this and in January 2015, I could finally put names to the issues I was struggling with (apart from the Autism diagnosis which came several months later). My psychiatrist recommended Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) so we started looking for another therapist.

My current therapist is the first one we met. I just knew she was right; me and Mum walked out, looked at each other, and said, ‘she’s the one.’ We did meet another one but my mind was made up. And we were right. She’s amazing. I’ve been seeing her for three years now and I’m so grateful to have that safe place. DBT suits me much better. It’s based on CBT but, as the Mind website says, it’s “been adapted to help people who experience emotions very intensely.” They both help with changing unhelpful thoughts and behaviours, but DBT also helps you to accept yourself. It’s about a balance between acceptance and change. That really makes sense to me and always has.

In the beginning, I needed my Mum in the room with me and she would answer all the questions. We’d always talked about everything so she knew pretty much all the answers. But over time, I felt more comfortable there. I needed Mum there less and less and eventually I started doing the whole session by myself. Three years later and it’s really, really important to me. It’s a huge part of who I am. It’s not easy; it’s really hard work and I often come home exhausted, sometimes falling asleep on the sofa afterwards. But it’s really satisfying to talk things through, to make connections, to see change happen. I’ve talked about things that I never, ever thought I would talk about and I’ve worked through things I never thought I’d let go of. That’s so huge that I can’t really comprehend it.

So that’s my therapy journey. For me, it’s DBT that works but I’ve seen the others help people too. You need to be ready, you need to find the right approach, and you need to find the right person. It’s not easy but it is worth it.

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