We’ve all heard the same statistics in the media;
- 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience mental health problems
- 10% of mothers and 6% of fathers in the UK have mental health problems at any given time
- 4-10% of people in England will experience depression in their lifetime
But even with those statistics many people think that they’ll be one of the 3 people who won’t experience mental illness. It’s still easy to rule yourself out of being affected. It’s still hard for some people to talk about. I'll be the first to admit that there are plenty of self indulgent posts and tweets out there in the world which in the past I've found difficult and exasperating to read. But the more I'm experiencing and reading about mental health, the more it's clear that that's the right thing to do. To talk about it, to show that any body can experience it, and you can come through the other side. [EDIT: even in the few hours since this post has been up, I've had a number of people message me to tell me how they relate to this post. Please feel free to contact me if you want to talk about what you've been through or are going through, I'll never turn anybody away who wants to talk. Alternatively, please take that important step and go to your doctor.]
So here’s me. Let’s start this conversation. Today is depression.
In the last 12 months, my life has changed dramatically. At the start of 2015 I was living in London with a long distance, long-term boyfriend and living with two of my closest friends whilst struggling to really figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I had completed a Masters degree a couple of years previously but wasn’t having any luck with following that route through life. I enjoyed my job but didn’t have any energy at the end of the day to do much socialising nor did I have any spare cash for fun things and, in truth, I was a bit bored. London was draining my happiness away even though I had based 8 years of my life there and moving anywhere seemed like a huge gamble.
But I got the opportunity to move to Glasgow with work and decided to take that huge jump into the unknown, as I didn’t really have any friends in Glasgow and barely knew the city. I did know I needed a new adventure and this seemed to appear at the right time. I was frequently told how brave I was and the most common question was “why?” and instead of explaining myself too much to each person which would open up the discussion about what I needed to make me happy, I firmly replied “why not?”.
I hadn’t really considered all of the difficulties that would come along with moving to almost the other side of the country, to a city I barely new, all by myself. The only other time I had made a big move was to London to start university. Everybody is in the same boat at university; you are all there to meet new people and make friends and broaden your horizons. When you’re older you often get settled in your group of friends and meeting new people and expanding your social group is usually a conscious choice. I found it difficult to find an ‘in’ and make friends even with websites such as meetup.com which is specifically designed for like minded people to get together and enjoy different activities. I found it hard to make a bond with any body because of the lack of continuity with who went to each event but I think I gave it a good go.
I moved to Glasgow in July 2015 and by November my mental health had already started to take a slow decline due to the feelings of isolation. If I'm brutally honest with myself, my mental health had been on the decline since the start of the year. I felt very disconnected from my friends in London and my relationship had been on its way out for a long time. It took me a while to realize the low I had hit but once I looked at the calendar and saw I hadn’t cycled my bike for weeks I took a reality check. I have had depression before and I’m aware of my typical personal warning signs but this time was such a slow decline into loneliness it wasn’t until I was close to rock bottom that I realized how bad things had become. And it was all my own doing. Though I have a tendency to blame myself for everything. I'm very hard on myself.
At Christmas I found myself newly single, alone, low on money and struggling to get out of bed. This is the important point. The second I picked up the phone to call the doctors I put myself back on the correct track. I looked for help. The doctor signed me off and I returned to that cliché place; back to my parents. But this is exactly what I needed and it shouldn't be undermined or underestimated. Even though I was 26, I needed to be taken care of but also be left to just get across the sharpest of the rocks at the bottom of that well I was in.
So how did depression manifest itself in me? I didn’t eat well. Before Christmas I had been comfort eating. After the shock of my relationship breakdown I stopped eating. I lost a lot of weight. I stopped sleeping. I was physically ill most mornings (though I wasn’t pregnant). I didn’t shower for a few days in a row at my most worst. I had zero energy and wanted to sleep all the time. I stopped having any desire to do anything I enjoyed doing. The most difficult one for me to break through was the spiral of thoughts going round in my head. Thoughts that I knew were wrong and not worthy of my time but I really struggled with ignoring. Once I got a hold back on those thoughts, things started to improve. The anti-depressants helped too. I had never taken any form of anti-depressant before this episode; cognitive behavioural therapy had been enough to get me better. But this time round it felt different; I wasn’t afraid of being given that little bit of buoyancy to get better regardless of all of the controversies surrounding anti-depressants.
Most notably, my friends and family helped to remind me of the person I was before the depression took hold. I’m a positive, happy, funny person and I had forgotten about that the lower I got. Depression can strip away everything personal to you and leave you in a deep black hole wherein you’re not able to recognise the person you’ve become. My best friend took me to Box Hill where I sat and watched lots of cyclists peddling past in the cold and I started to get a desire to get back on the bike thought it took me until February to do so. She sat and watched crap films with me. She cooked me food and didn’t force me to eat it, but when I did she would celebrate with me. My mum took me to a spa day and I started to get a desire to take care of myself again.
Depression is like any other illness. You can have a bad bout of it but come out the other side and learn what to do next time to attempt to avoid it (though I realise this isn’t applicable to all illnesses). For me, it’s like getting a cold. If I travel on a lot of public transport or if I cycle a lot in heavy rain and the cold or if I work far too hard for far too long without a rest, I will get a bad cold. So I’ve learnt to try to avoid these things and be aware of the blocked sinuses and sore skin that precede the cold. So to avoid a bout of depression I need to be kinder to myself and to keep an eye on my energy levels and my desire to socialize. These are the warning signs for me. What are your warning signs?
Depression isn’t the same for everyone and can be chronic and without trigger. In the same way diet doesn’t cause Crohn’s, or lifestyle doesn’t always cause cancer. On the opposite scale, much of this blog post can be relatable to just feeling low. Feeling low and having depression are two very different things, but self care and mental wellbeing is tantamount to living well.
I’ve written about invasive negatives thoughts before and I’m quite proud of the way I shimmy these out of my brain. I’ve learnt to imagine each of these thoughts as a tangible object and when they appear I can open the imaginary window in my brain and let it bounce out into space. It can bounce like a ball around your brain and out the window, or it can be like a fluid and wash away leaving no mark. It takes a lot of practice, but you can let the thoughts wash through your mind without taking much notice of them. Like tears in rain, if you will.
So now my life is almost unrecognizable from last year but all in positive ways now I’m coming through the other side of my illness. That’s all that happened. I was ill and took some time off work. I was very lucky to have an understanding line manager and colleagues who put zero stress on me to return to work; they just wanted to make sure I was getting better. But that sentence is the saddest thing. You shouldn’t have to feel lucky when mental illness is treated like shingles or the flu. Staying away from work is standard in those instances. This is why the work of charities like Mind is so important. They provide training and corporate partnerships with workplaces to improve the working lives of the every day human being. That’s you.
So be kind to yourself and do everything you can to stay healthy physically and mentally. Exercise can help with that. Ever East isn’t a knee jerk reaction to the depression but I feel stronger to be able to do such an exciting project because of what I’ve learnt about myself. Going to the doctor changed my life, letting myself be vulnerable to my family and friends changed my life, going to counseling changed my life, and meeting Mike has changed my life. Everything is for the better. You can come out of the other side of depression a stronger person.
Hi, and welcome to Ever East
It’s March 2016 and this is our first (of hopefully many) blog posts, both in preparation for the trip and from the road. We’re hoping to keep this updated regularly with all sorts of aspects of our trip and our lives, so people get a really good idea of who we are, why we’re doing this, and what’s it’s really like for two people to quit their jobs, pack up, and cycle around the world together.
You’ll see from our biographies that we’re a product of internet dating, so hopefully that makes for an interesting start already… In truth, before we met, we were independently thinking about riding around the world solo, and it just so happened that we found in each other another person equally crazy enough to want to do it (and to do it together). But cycling and that ambition isn’t the only thing we’ve got in common; we share an outlook on most aspects of life (except on the Cadbury/Galaxy chocolate debate, what constitutes ‘a nice temperature’ and vegetarianism [Helen's note: Galaxy and 'not so cold you shiver']). We both know that there’s more to life than a house, car and career, and since there was nothing stopping us except ourselves fulfilling a long held dream, why not actually go and do it?
Mental health is something that is very important to us both. We’ve both suffered through difficult times in our lives, and seen those times out. Many people aren’t so lucky. Many people don’t have a network of supportive friends, family and colleagues with the patience, empathy and understanding to help. Many people view mental ill health as something to be ashamed of, or to be scared of, or simply as a weakness. It affects so many people, and really it's none of those things; it’s an illness and it’s treatable. And therein lies the rub: sufferers often lack support and understanding, or fear opening up about being unwell. In our view that is among the most damaging aspects; it causes sufferers to internalise their illness, doubt and blame themselves, it destroys their wellbeing, they withdraw and repeat: a process that can be crippling iterative. We don’t have the answer but what we do know is that, from our experience, openness and support helps a great deal.
So, when we speak about ‘raising awareness of mental ill health’ we address it to two audiences. Firstly, to those lucky enough not to experience it, it’s just like any other illness: a simple misfortune, so don’t assign blame to the sufferer, they aren’t weak or at fault. What’s more, you probably know someone who isn’t well. The signs aren’t always obvious: a friend might be ignoring your texts, or drinking too much, or glossing over something that ought to be difficult for them: stoicism and smiling is the classic mask of the depressed mind. So be observant, be thoughtful, ask uncomfortable questions and be willing to offer support (for which you might not always receive immediate thanks). If they open up to you, be grateful: you’re trusted and special, albeit you may feel you’ve received a difficult privilege. And to the sufferers, the message is the same: don’t be embarrassed or ashamed; it’s ok not to be well. Find someone you can talk to, trust that there are people who want to and are able to help. Even if you just speak to your doctor at first, take that daunting step. It’s the first on the path to wellness, and there will be people to help you along the way. Think of them as sherpas, if you want, and unburden yourself just a little.
So our thanks go out our friends, family and colleagues who guided us to better times, and our thoughts to those who need the support of those around them.
And so here’s to the path to wellness, a route that is taking us Ever East.