Hello, so it’s Alex from Pushing Back the Shadows here and today we’re bringing you another one of our interviews, this time with Louise, who I met on Twitter. So hello Louise.
Hello. How are you doing today?
I’m not too bad thank you.
Good. So talking about mental health, what kind of conditions, what sort of conditions do you live with?
I have depression and general anxiety.
Depression and general anxiety. And how long have you been living with those?
Um…the depression really since I was a child, that’s when I first started showing signs of it, so around 10 or 11. The anxiety crept in somewhere later. Knowing what I know now, I think probably that started in my teens, I just didn’t realise at the time that anxiety is what it was.
Yeah, I suppose I’ve said about my own that I’m not sure how early it started, whether it was before the diagnosis or not. It can be difficult, can’t it, to figure it out.
Yeah, I think mine was definitely quite a while before the diagnosis but…in particular I wrote a story in my final year of primary school about a boy who took an overdose to kill himself. I made it a boy so they didn’t get suspicious about me but it’s probably not something that a 10-year-old should be writing about and identifying with.
Not really, no. It’s interesting that you say that, as I’ve recently written an article that says about how early depression and mental health issues can set in, as the article I’d read said as early as 4 or 5, that sort of thing, so it’s interesting to hear you say that. So you’ve had them for quite a while now, just a couple of years, how does it affect you on a daily basis? What would your typical good day look like and typical bad day?
Erm…a good day, I can function as a human being. It’s easier to do things, easier to focus and concentrate and connect with things. I can relax. If something goes wrong, it doesn’t just completely throw everything into despair and my whole day goes out of sorts. I can get through the day without too much problems. There’s still negative thoughts and thought processes but I’m able to identify them for what they are and handle them instead of letting them run away with me.
So it lets you deal with things a bit better, it’s easier to cope.
Yeah, I can cope with things and disruptions and just the general tasks of day to day living. It makes it easier.
And then on the flipside, a bad day, what would that tend to look like?
That tends to be the polar opposite of a good day, really. I find it very hard to handle even the smallest tasks. I feel like I’m just disconnected from everything, it’s hard to engage, it’s hard to enjoy things I’d normally get pleasure from, hard to focus or concentrate, hard to relax. My brain just goes into cycles of negative thinking and overthinking and a general feeling of sadness or despair which may not even have a root cause, it’s just something that’s there, but it makes it very hard to have any motivation to do anything. I lack energy. Kinda difficult to communicate. And with the anxiety I’ve developed a couple of nervous habits like tapping my fingers, wiggling my toes or fiddling with any jewellery I’m wearing. So, it’s kind of the opposite of a good day.
I guess a lot of those things translate over to how some of my good days and bad days look as well. How do you find – ’cause at Pushing Back the Shadows we try and help friends and family members as well, try and bring understanding because it’s not something that’s really easy for people to understand – how do you find that the depression and the anxiety affects your family, your friends and, as you used to be an early care worker, how did it affect work as well?
It made work difficult, especially being in a person-centred, people-facing profession. The children were fine, it was just the adults that were difficult to deal with. I’d find it difficult to talk to parents on a bad day and then my teeth would start chattering and I’d feel silly because I sounded like I was cold even though I wasn’t cold, I was just nervous. Also some of it was thinking about things I’d done, you know, did I do that wrong, should I have done this or maybe I shouldn’t have done that. So I think my issues with working tended to settle a lot around obsessive, critical thinking, and criticising myself, so things that most people would let completely go over their head and wouldn’t even notice. In terms of family and friends, I’m very lucky that I have a family who understands depression and anxiety and they’re very supporting, they’re there for me to talk to and they will understand, but it’s still hard because you don’t want to burden them with your problems and your difficulties because you know that they love you and that they care for you and you don’t want to cause them concern or worry. So I tended to either end up just pretending I’m fine, everything’s OK – which is difficult for me because then I stuff it down and it ends up making me feel worse in the end – or the opposite of that is I end up withdrawing. I can’t communicate, I find it really hard to communicate, I just shut down. That can be particularly hard with friendships because people don’t really understand when you just completely cut off, when you stop talking, stop messaging and, especially if they don’t understand anxiety and depression, it can be quite damaging to a friendship because they think you’re just being rude. Generally I’m not being rude, I just can’t cope.
I know that feeling because it’s something I’ve done as well. Then, just as a slight spin off that – and I apologise in advance – you’ve got a little boy, haven’t you, and how do you find that works? I know I mentioned just now that depression can start a lot earlier but I guess it’s not something that he would necessarily understand.
No, it’s tough because I’ve done my best throughout his – he’s 4 – and throughout those 4 years I’ve done my best to protect him as much as possible from seeing any change in my mood or being able to pick up. Obviously children do pick up on things and I had postnatal anxiety so instead of rejecting or not being able to connect with him, I went the opposite way and I was just obsessive that if I wasn’t there for him all the time he wasn’t going to love me and I needed to be the one who provided everything for him, so that was quite difficult. In general, it’s a case of just trying to be strong and putting on a smile but that can be exceptionally draining on the days that are bad, to try and pretend everything’s OK. Then it takes so much energy doing that that there’s very little energy for anything else. It can be tough.
I find it’s easier, particularly with small children like my goddaughter, to put that smile on but it still can be quite draining.
On the flipside, he can be the thing that makes me smile, so it can be quite nice in that respect.
So, as you’ve been living with it for a while now, you’ve got better at coping with it. What sort of things do you use to cope?
Lots of different things, I mean currently I’m taking medication to help with both the anxiety and the depression, which I wasn’t for a long time but it got to a point where there wasn’t really any choice but take some medication. I have to say I know there’s a stigma surrounding taking medication for depression and people don’t want to do it but I would say to anyone don’t hold back if you feel that you need it because it really made a difference to me. Before I started taking it, I realised that I just wasn’t feeling happy about anything. I would be in a situation thinking I should be feeling happy now, I should be feeling this, but there was just a complete and utter shut down and disconnect and the medication helped me to reconnect with that. That moment when the medication started working and I started feeling happiness again was quite profound. I try and use mindfulness techniques, so focusing on breathing to calm myself down if I’m particularly anxious or calming my mind. Music is a big thing for me, I’ve always used music as a kind of therapy so if I’m down or depressed, I’ll find something to listen to to either try and identify with or just distract my mind. I have a fidget cube for my anxiety, which I tend to take out with me. Lots of things to just kind of fiddle with and click and press, which gives my fidgety fingers something to do.
I use a fidget cube, I think we’ve discussed that at length!
Yeah, I’m like a fidget cube salesperson!
What do you find is least effective when you’re trying to cope?
Sometimes I try and push everything down and think no it’s OK, just move on, you’ll be alright, get on with it, ignore that it’s there and that can be the most damaging thing that I do because when I push it down, it doesn’t have anywhere to go and it just sits there and lingers and ends up coming out in other ways like anxiety or negative thoughts towards myself or thoughts of self-harm, so I have to be strict with myself and if I do feel those things, almost recognising and saying “right, you’re there, I see you, I feel you” and, at the time, I may not have the strength to deal with it so I might say I’m going to distract myself with some music or writing but, at some point, I have to accept that that’s there so I can deal with it or let it go a bit more rather than letting it sit inside and build up. If that makes sense.
Yeah, that makes sense. It’s important to deal with them because pushing them down, suppressing them doesn’t work, it comes back worse in the long run. As I’ve mentioned before, we aim to support people who are going through mental health conditions, whether that’s depression, anxiety or any other like bipolar or insomnia. If there was one thing you could say to someone who was going through depression or anxiety, what would it be?
I think really just be compassionate with yourself. People with depression or anxiety tend to be our own worst critics and very hard and very unkind to ourselves. If you think about the way you would treat someone else if you came across them, and how you’d relate to them and how you’d advise them, it’s very different to how you’d treat yourself so almost flipping that round and just be kind, be gentle, appreciate that you also deserve that and that you deserve to be cared for and protected, not criticised and demeaned for the things that you consider to be your flaws. Have the strength to know that compassion isn’t always about taking the easy route so if you want to stay in bed all day, it might not be the most healthy thing for you to do so it might be just having the strength to say OK I need to do something, getting out of bed and going for a walk, even if it’s on your own for five minutes or something, just do that, do something for yourself.
Self-care is very important and it’s not something we’re good at. We also try and support friends and family, try and bring that understanding, because I’ve heard a lot of stories and a lot of people’s experiences about how friends and family didn’t necessarily know how to help, know what to do. What would your advice be for someone on the outside looking in, someone trying to support someone that they know?
I think patience is quite a big thing. It can be quite difficult because when you have anxiety and depression, you’ve got no energy and you’ve got no focus, you can be forgetful, you can be disorganised and it can seem like you’re paying attention or you don’t care or you’re being rude and some people can think you’re being lazy. I think it’s just the patience to appreciate that it’s not a person being rude or disrespectful, they can be so entangled in their inner difficulties that it’s hard to concentrate on anything outside of themselves. Also, they’re having to work past a lot of tiredness, lack of energy and this mental barrier of constant questioning and self-doubt, which can make even the tiniest of tasks seem completely insurmountable. It can be very hard for someone to understand when they haven’t suffered from depression or anxiety. Some days I’m fine and then other days just getting the cucumber out of the fridge and cutting it up just seemed like too much, a difficult task, and I didn’t want to do it, which sounds ridiculous, but it was just that one extra task, that one extra thing taking that one extra bit of energy that I just didn’t have. I think it’s just appreciating that, understanding that and trying not to judge and also trying not to fix people. I know it’s very hard, when you come across someone in pain you want to do something to help them but sometimes the most helpful thing is just being there and lsitening and giving them a hug if they need it or just saying “OK, what do you need from me right now?” and not being offended by the answer if that person says they need space or need to be quiet, give them the space or let them be quiet or if they need to talk then listen.
It’s remembering that it’s not personal the way they’re responding, that it’s not directed at you, it’s just how they’re feeling.
Yes, very much so.
Thank you very much, I really appreciate you taking the time to share your story.