Exercise and Depression

It’s the most obvious thing you get told when you have depression: try exercise, it will make you feel better. While it’s true it’s also one of the most difficult and hopeless things to even think of.

When you have depression getting out of bed feels like a marathon. On the worse days getting through the day is like wading through quicksand. So getting out of the house to the gym or for a walk seems like the advice-giver is having a particularly cruel joke at your expense.

I have struggled with depression for a few years now. I’ve also seen it from the side of a carer so I also know how painfully frustrating it can be to suggest even mild exercise, desperate to help but knowing that it will most likely feel very unhelpful to the listener. I also have a fairly rubbish history of exercise – I hated PE and our teacher’s comments which were repeatedly cruel and hurtful, and combined with the natural grace and coordination of a cabbage, that has left me with a lifelong hatred of anything that resembles physical activity. You can guess the result – I am chronically unfit,  overweight and suffer from lower body pains most of every day.

And I’m supposed to exercise to beat depression?  Uh-huh.

Except the only thing I can say is, actually,  yes.

I was referred to my local gp fitness scheme. I’ve been to the gym 3 times (yes! count ’em!) and there has been an impact already. I couldn’t have done my Memory Walk on Sunday before this. I have done gardening. I have even been able to say that I don’t feel depressed – I don’t remember the last time I could say that.

So, honestly, all I can say to anyone feeling depressed (and ready to throw the nearest heavy object at the next person to use the ‘E’ word) is: don’t give up.

If you want something more specific,  I’ll try. One of the least helpful things in depression is general,  vaguely-positive bits of advice. When you’re depressed you don’t want to know what you should do. I KNOW I should exercise,  I hear it all the **/@^*^/$* time. What I need to know is HOW.

1. Try,  in the good spells (you will have them, promise) to be open to suggestions of different kinds of activity. Activity isn’t necessarily going to the gym, it is anything that lifts your heart rate and gets you moving even a little bit. As far as I’m concerned, all of the following count:
Wiggling your bum to spotify or radio or anything with a beat
Wii games – yes dance or wii fit but anything will do to start
An extra trip up the stairs
Any length walk if it’s longer than you might usually do – I mean just 5 minutes longer
Obviously, swimming, dance classes, tennis or any other vaguely sporty thing

2. If you ask me, the important thing is to do something that’s a tiny increase on your current level and congratulate yourself for it. You get the self-esteem boost and you get a little taste of the endorphins that everyone bangs on about. You might not do another thing for the next 3 months but that one little step will make it that bit easier next time, and the time after, and the time after that.

3. Be kind to yourself when you really, really can’t do it. I know you feel worthless but a) you will not always feel like that and b) when you do, it’s really not helpful to have another thing you can beat yourself up for. Activity is an amazing thing when you can do it but it’s not a crime when you can’t and any other attitude will beat you down every time you even think about being able to try something. “Oh what’s the point,  I never stick to anything, I’m too unfit,  some days I can’t even get off the couch so how do I expect to do exercise?” Yes, I know sweetie. Have a hug, have a lazy day (or two), then when you feel better (can’t say it enough, you WILL) have a go at something that takes your fancy. No pressure.

4. Make sure you rule out physical factors that get in the way. Yes I’m unfit and depressed but the levels of tired I felt a couple of months back were off the scale. Sometimes you know deep down the difference between the sludge of depression and just plain old bone-aching exhaustion. If so get it checked out. My thyroid levels needed checking as it turned out; you could also need to check iron levels, underlying infection, inflammation, diabetes. If there is something it is usually easily treated,  so why leave yourself with an unnecessary extra burden?

5. While you’re at the doctor’s, ask about talking therapies. CBT can help you tackle thoughts and feelings that are basically ruining your life and help you solve problems like how to build gentle activity into your routine. And tackling unhelpful thoughts about one thing can lift your mood a fraction, enough to make other things seem possible that just weren’t before.

6. Be patient. It might take years, medication, courses of therapy and a kick up the bum to get you into the place you need to be to make exercise an option.

For me it was chronic pain and health risks, and I might easily fall back into depression tomorrow for all I know. But hopefully, if and when that happens, I can build on what I feel are very real victories here and it will be that tiny bit quicker and less painful to help myself again.

Paraphernalia of one’s own

shutterstock_121678021I’m a carrier. I carry stuff around with me everywhere. If I get a new book (joy of joys) I carry it to bed, to each room that I go to, I have it sitting next to me. I have a box of things that I carry upstairs on a night and downstairs on a morning – this is actually part of my self-help, it’s a tip I picked up from I Had A Black Dog by Matthew Johnstone  and contains things to make me feel better, things that remind me of good stuff, of how to be myself.

All of this evidence leads inevitably to the question of handbags. I’m afraid I contribute to the stereotype of a woman obsessed with bags. I love them. I get a bag I like and I use it until it dies, or at least until I have to give it a little rest in the name of humanity. Bag-amity. Whatever. I could window shop for bags for hours as my long-suffering Beloved Husband knows. And I start with very good intentions, honestly I do. I try to limit what I put in my bag to the essentials – a wee bit of essential make-up, a notebook, purse, organiser and of course, my Kindle. It ends up becoming a receptacle for, well, pretty much everything.

But I feel slightly more justified in my hoardiness now, in my clinging to paraphernalia. Paraphernalia, I have learned, is derived from two Greek words, para -meaning beside – and pherne – meaning dowry (Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, p 989, 2009; also noted from Paraphernalia – The Curious Lives of Magical Things by Steven Connor, which looks like an excellent book). It refers to everything that a woman possesses besides her dowry, ie everything which is actually her own. This doesn’t have all that much meaning now but in a time when a woman’s possessions automatically became her husband’s upon marriage, this paraphernalia is actually very significant and, I imagine, quite precious.

It links very nicely with my recent reading of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s OwnShe famously said that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write. I’m quite sure she meant it literally, money and your own personal space are both precious and necessary for producing good work. But they are also important for the autonomy and sense of self-distinction that they indicate. Having a space of your own, like having possessions of your own outside your dowry, give you a chance to see yourself as your own entity, entitled to occupy that pocket of space and time in your own right and not merely as ‘wife’ or ‘mother’ or ‘daughter’ however important those roles are. That distinction has been important to women through history, surely? To all humans – that they, themselves, are entitled to occupy that particular bit of space and time despite the prejudices of those around them?

My paraphernalia, then, is a chance to stand up for my rights I suppose! I’m in the lucky position that I’m the only one trying to suppress me, although I am pretty good at that. My paraphernalia is a chance to express who I am – by looking at my paraphernalia, could you tell what kind of person I am? I think so. I have a little bit of make-up – I like to look nice but it’s far from the biggest part of my paraphernalia. I have a notebook – I like to note things down, things that interest me or arouse my curiosity; I’m also a writer. I have a organiser – I’m not very organised and a flick through this would show a stranger all of the lists and appointments and reminders I need to function in the same reality as the rest of the world. It also shows how important my family are to me, in the front there’s a picture of my babies and throughout the pages are appointments like ‘Daniel’s swimming lesson’ or ‘Emily’s nursery’. I have a kindle – books are hugely important to me, and scanning the books I have on my kindle would give someone the impression of a butterfly with a wide range of interests; the books not yet finished (oh, that tell-tale progress bar!) show how my concentration can be distracted by the new pretty shiny thing.

I’d say that’s a pretty good picture of me. So my paraphernalia has truly become, in a sense, my room of my own and my own self and I shall continue to carry my paraphernalia around with me and take up that pocket of space with pride. Or at least, without guilt.

Flitting Around the Arts

It seems my whole creativity has been locked away somewhere, just out of reach. Like a particularly tormenting biscuit barrel that a child (oh no, Emily, whatever makes you think I was thinking of you?) can just see but is too high to touch. I keep saying, I will write, I will blog, I will draw, I will play but it’s never quite the right time for that. I’m beginning to reach it – picture a wobbly two year old stretching and balancing on tiptoes – and part of the reason for that is my recent plunge into the arts.

The Open University course I began in October – and somehow am nearly finished – is The Arts Past and Present and has been a breathtaking tour through history, poetry, art, classical studies, philosophy, religious studies, english literature, music history… have I missed anything? Probably. While the biggest gain from the course has been greasing my rusty old brain cells again, I’ve come away with a new appreciation of The Arts that I never had. I’m discovering the joy of wandering around an art gallery (including the stuff that doesn’t look like anything), reading new poetry (including the stuff that doesn’t rhyme), thinking new thoughts (including the stuff that doesn’t seem to make sense…yet).

Last weekend Beloved Husband and I went into the Laing art gallery in Newcastle. It’s the first time I’ve been to a traditional gallery and happily I had already covered and enjoyed the coursework on art history, giving me some basic skills to appreciate the paintings. I really did. It was awe-inspiring to be millimetres away from these wonderful paintings and to try to tease out what each one was making me feel. I’ll be back. Bwahaha.

And today I got a book of poetry by Carol Ann Duffy from the library in Durham. I’ve never really read her work, and I’m entirely new to poetry having blocked out GCSE English other than a few fragments of Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est. All I know about poetry is an introduction via Seamus Heaney and Thomas Hardy in my course assignment, and Stephen Fry’s rather wonderful book, The Ode Less Travelled. Oh, and I tried some Sylvia Plath but struggled a little, despite really wanting to ‘get’ her. So today I fancied being brave and trying a whole book of poetry by one author and I took home The Bees, Duffy’s first anthology since becoming Poet Laureate. I devoured it in pretty much one sitting and then started again. I loved the language, the emotions she wrought, and the pictures she made real.

So while my own creativity is locked away, I’m feeding on the creativity of others and at the minute, I’ve got a reading list as long as my arm. I don’t know how long it will take me to reach that part of myself again but I do know I’m getting there, and that along the way I’m finding new and wonderful arts to enrich my soul a thousand times more than it was before.

Five ways to help yourself through depression

It’s a couple of months since I posted about my depression and I’ve since been to see my doctor and started on anti-depressants. I’m a different person to the one I was a few months ago; I’m cooking, looking after my house and my kids, starting the first module of an Open University degree and even taking small steps to get back into writing and revising the novel draft I finished earlier this year.

I hadn’t realised until looking back over the past few months, years, whatever, how much of my life was lost to depression. Now that I’m getting my life back I think how lucky I am and how important it is that anyone who is worrying about depression gets some help. Anti-depressant medication won’t help everyone, or it might but only after much experimentation to see what suits you personally, but it has to be worth a shot.

Anyway, there are some small things I’ve found that help lift me, even with the drugs, when I feel that dark tug.

  1. Music. Make a playlist and put on your ipod, burn it to a CD, whatever. Make a couple, actually; one should be a wallowing CD, where you feel free to just feel miserable. IMHO this should be saved for certain occasions like where those blasted hormones add their tuppence’orth to the slurry pit of life. The main one should be any and all music that gets you singing along or dancing in the kitchen or nodding like the Churchill dog, whatever eclectic mix it ends up as. One of my mood CDs has some Breton folk music, the 1812 Overture and Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful all on the same CD and I love it. FYI, Queen are generally a good bet. Can anyone resist doing a Wayne’s World to Bohemian Rhapsody?
  2. Find a ‘hand hobby’. Mine is baking (Marian Keyes’ book is an excellent place to start), yours could be gardening, knitting, woodcarving. Something traditional and satisfying, that really uses your hands. For all though there’s something soothing about using your hands and sort of getting back to basics, I’ve heard too that actually stimulating the nerves in your hands produces happy hormones. Sounds good to me? Also, it’s very stress-relieving to knead the bejeebus out of bread dough or chop carrots with venom. Better the carrots than the husband, if you ask me.
  3. Light a candle. Yes, even in summer. The dancing light of the flame is hypnotising and soothing, and the scent should be one that makes you happy. Spend time, AGES in fact, browsing a good selection of scented candles to find one you like and remember that smell is quite a personal thing, with a scent that one person loves doing absolutely nothing for someone else. I have a Yankee Candles Black Cherry one that I love. It’s a very happy scent, fruity and sweet and ever so slightly decadent-dressed-up-as-wholesome.
  4. Get into nature. Gardening, as I said above, is fabulous although I’m no-one to talk since I’m generally acknowledged among the family as the Kiss of Death to plants. But I hear it’s very good for you and the time I do spend in the garden I feel peaceful and satisfied. Sally Brampton in her book Shoot the Damn Dog is a wonderful advocate of gardening. Plus you’ll be saving the planet and that’s a great thing for giving a teeny boost to your sense of self-worth. There’s also going for a wander in some greenery, going to the beach and running sand and/or water through your fingers or going to the top of a windy, exposed hill like in the Dales and letting the elements hit you. Even better if it’s raining, but try to have someone standing by in the car with a flask of tea and a towel and a hug. I love the feel of rain on me, it really reminds me I’m alive which is far too easy a thing to forget.
  5. Explore alternative remedies. I’m a great believer in aromatherapy and western herbalism, and I hear loads about the power of meditation and mindfulness. Close your eyes in the middle of a depressive spell and spend five minutes breathing deeply and listening. If there’s running water nearby that’s a bonus but it would be good if you weren’t distracted by needing a wee in the middle of connecting with your inner self.

These help me, but won’t all work for everyone. The important thing is to find what does work for you in my opinion. Some people find writing during depression extremely therapeutic; I couldn’t face a pen and am having to ease myself back in. And all of these are self-help tricks, not cures. No substitute for going to a trusted doctor and talking through how you feel. Most importantly, acknowledging to first yourself, then your closest family, that there’s a problem is absolutely essential and can take ages. I’ve had a problem for years but didn’t acknowledge it till last year, and even then it took months to come to terms with properly and even longer to ask for help in the form of medication. The important thing is to give yourself permission to feel how you do then you can start to look after yourself.

Now I’m off to pummel some bread dough.

Doing Ok

So, my posts lately, as well as being ever so slightly erratic, have not been particularly cheerful, have they? Apart from the Saved by Cake one. Cake is always cheerful, unless something goes horribly wrong. Well, I thought I might pop in and say, I’m doing ok.

What inspired this? I was hanging washing on the line, the children were playing with abandon and joy in the garden, the sun was shining and warm and I had one of those really special moments where you stop and realise “right now, I’m happy’. Actually happy, properly, daft-smile-on-your-face-for-no-reason happy.

A few weeks ago, no matter what anyone said, I couldn’t have counted my blessings if they jumped up and hit me in the face with a wet herring. I could reel of a list of things that were going well but that just didn’t translate in my brain into ‘These are things about my life that tell me life is good’. Now I can see them for the gifts that they are: my kids are happy and healthy (now that Daniel has got over the horrible tonsillitis that spoiled his last fortnight of term) and sun-kissed and soaking up fresh air and sunshine (yes, even in the north-east of England! Well, it’s all relative) and clever and inquisitive and loving and, most important, they know they are loved. My husband is tired but seeing real success and fulfilment through his business. I’m throwing myself into cooking and learning to enjoy being a housewife for the first time since taking on this, frankly, terrifying and exhausting role. And I am letting my brain tick over; I’m not saying I’m writing again but there are rusty old cogs beginning to turn again. Today’s blog post is tangible proof of that (can a blog post be tangible? The metaphysics of the internet!). I’m getting closer to my family and closer to my real self. Once I find my real self again, the Real Becca (scary, eh?) I can begin to reconnect with the world again; I’m starting, in my own little way.

One of the tv shows the Best Beloved and I enjoy together is Outnumbered, the semi-improvised sitcome about the Brockman family.. It’s mad, chaotic and messy, and funny and true. One of the ongoing character traits of Sue, the mum, is her we-all-so-do-that tendency to compare herself to all the other mums. But you know, I think the Brockmans have things pretty well-cracked. Sue has a job and her house is untidy but not dirty, more a ‘lived-in’ look, she has a stable marriage and they have a secure income and a gorgeous house. More importantly, their kids are hard work, yes, but they’re intelligent, sociable, conversational, curious and they have a strong bond to each other despite the frequent spats. I think Sue’s doing ok.

I think I am too.