Listen To Yourself

In my normal state of mind I keep a journal – not every day but most days – and enjoy trying to capture the best bits of the day in words, thinking things through on paper, or just letting my mind off the lead for a run around.  When the Dog arrives, one of the first things he does is hide the journal.  It has been months since I last wrote in it – I am too busy trying to catch up on all the things I should have done but haven’t, too jittery to just let my mind go, too scared of what I might hear if I listen to myself.  And recounting all my failures and exploring my fears is the last thing I want to do.  So, little by little, I stop listening to me.

I miss me.  Over the years I have learned to like myself and – perhaps more importantly – trust my own instincts.  I know there is a place inside me that is quite wise and usually able to help me steer myself through life’s rapids if I can only listen to it.  But I also know it takes time to access that bit of myself and right now I don’t have the energy or time, much less the inclination, to put in that effort.  This blog is one attempt to get back to spending a little time listening to myself each day and making it about a very specific thing means I am less scared of being overwhelmed by a flood of worries.  Tonight I took another step back towards opening up a little dialogue with myself and dug out the journal.  I set myself just one specific task to do and limited it to five minutes:  the task was simply to list the things I have achieved today, however tiny, and to list the things that brought me pleasure.

I liked feeling myself moving in the right direction: just having my familiar notebook back in my hands gives me hope that I will one day be my old journalling self again.  Depression makes your default setting the search for danger and it takes an effort of will to do the opposite and look for positives so this simple task does a little to turn that tide.  I berate myself each day for my many failings and it makes me miserable and no less likely to fail again in exactly the same ways the next day.  But I am not exclusively failing and I have lost sight of that.  Listing what I achieved showed me that I am also succeeding at some things and that I am quite a bit better than I was a few months ago when I first crawled back to the doctor and admitted that I was depressed again.  Seeing it in black and white makes it seem more real too – hours later I am still satisfied with the fact that I achieved a few things and enjoyed a few things today.  The bad things though – they don’t make it onto the page and this diminishes them.  The success and pleasure are what really happened today.

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At a lecture many years ago the lecturer, as an aside, pointed out that once you get past a certain age, flexibility drops off much faster than strength or stamina, and is missed in your day to day life much more than either.

I am past a certain age.  And I know I should stretch out my muscles every day to avoid making THAT noise when I bend over to pick up the toddler but, by the time the kids are finally settled in bed (there was a lot of emphasis on the the word finally there) I can’t face another ‘ought to’.  I used to though – in fact, twenty minutes of stretching to relaxing music after the little ones’ bedtime used to be a pleasure I looked forward to from tea-time on.  But, like most pleasures when the Black Dog moves in, I have let it slide.  The Dog makes everything seem like a chore, and since my body and soul are temporarily numb to pleasure the things that usually delight me have lost their appeal.  But if I give up on all my previous pleasures then I am perpetuating the depression that has stealthily stopped me doing anything I used to enjoy.  So a simple task:  spend a few minutes stretching after the boys go to bed.

The first attempt was not a success.  I tried to simply march myself through a quick sequence of stretches but got bogged down trying to decide which stretches to do first.  Day two I decided to use a DVD instead and just follow someone else’s lead.  Alas, my littlest son, in his never-ending quest to seize anything shiny, had cherished the DVD one time too many and three minutes in it began to stick and jump.  After attempting to touch my toes while pointing the remote at the screen in a doomed attempt to unstick it I gave up in a filthy temper, deeply frustrated that I had failed – again – to do this simple task.  On day three I stuck on some music and did a basic salute to the sun, breathing in and out steadily in time to the music, matching the movements to my breath.  On day four I just stuck on the tv and began to stretch the bits that felt stiffest as I watched.

Not a great start to a new evening activity.  I want the tranquility of stretching to music that used to mark the beginning of ‘my’ part of the day, leaving me relieved of the day’s stresses and ready to enjoy a whole evening.  But… the regular breathing to music did slow me down and helped me to just focus on what I was doing right now rather than worry about what I didn’t get done earlier in the day, or what I would do tomorrow.  The big surprise was the stretching in front of the tv.  I hadn’t realised how much of the day’s stresses I am still carrying in my tense muscles at the day’s end.   I know my brain is still carrying them all – whizzing around endlessly like flies trapped in a jar – and know only to well how hard it is to get the brain to just let go.  I have been waiting for my brain to let go so my body could relax but last night I realised that I can go in through the other door too.  By gradually relieving the physical tension I tell my brain that we are letting go now.  I suspect the TV distracted my brain for long enough to let my body get in there.  Either way, I will continue to try to start my evening by physically letting go of the day.  And enjoy the lovely, heavy sensation of a body finally relaxed for the rest of the evening.


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Outside again

My eldest has been off school for the last few days.  His little brother, however, has been at his most beanful.  To balance his need of activity, my need to get outdoors and his brother’s need to stay still and do as little as possible we have popped to the park with the most close-at-hand parking each morning.  No agenda beyond just being there and a clear understanding that as soon as my eldest began to wilt we would abandon the outing.  Depression can take the nicest tasks and turn them into imperatives (we will go to the park and powerwalk around the pond three times in two minutes), setting unrealistic deadlines for their achievement (we will go the park and have a fabulous time and still be home in time for a mid-morning coffee and a trip to the supermarket) and leaving me with an anxious sense of urgency from the moment we start to put on our shoes.   But not these outings.

So for three lovely mornings I have sat on a bench and just chatted with my eldest while his brother ran from slide to trampoline and round in happy circles.  Together we have laughed at his brother’s antics and talked through whatever was on his mind without me trying to get anything else done and without having to break off constantly to deal with the toddler.  We were so still that on one day a squirrel climbed into my lap, paws on my chest and looked hopefully into my face.  Sorry little guy – no nuts here!  (I know – the irony!)

Today my boy was too ill still for a whole day of school, but too well to sit in front of a dvd or read a book all day, so we went for a longer outing.  We picked more damsons (this time for spiced damsons and a crumble) with the boy going from surly onlooker to damson-addict – I see one! And another!  Wait, there’s more just up here – can you lift me?  This is fun mum!  Then on to a grassy verge with half a dozen assorted crab-apple trees.  After racing around trying to outdo each other picking up windfalls he suggested getting on my back to reach the higher branches and so we lurched and giggled from branch to branch until our bag was full.

Tomorrow I will boil and spice and stir and pot up our spoils and each time I open a jar, I will remember a day of giggling in the autumn sunshine with my boy on my back.

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When I was a very little girl my grandad used to take me blackberrying.  It was a serious business:  for weeks running up to bramble time he would collect empty tin cans, making two small holes in the sides into which  he inserted string to form a handle just long enough to go over your head.  We would set forth with a dozen of these and one large, lidded box.  Having established bramble base camp by putting this box on the ground along with a pile of string-handled cans we would separate and work different bushes. With a can around your neck both hands were free for speedy picking into the can.  Once filled you brought it back to base, tipped its contents into the box and went back to work on the bush.  Once we had established that we were old enough to be trusted not to kick a full can over we were allowed to take two or three cans at a time to cut down on trips back to base.  The pleasure for us was in helping an adult with their ‘work’ and later in the bramble pies and bramble jelly my granny would produce.  According to my grandpa the pleasure for him was in getting something for free.

I try to get the Dog outdoors most days now because it does seem to help.  I have been thinking about my grandpa, eyes always checking out likely bramble patches whenever he went out for a walk, as I am out and about in the city.  Suddenly I am starting to see fruit where I only saw patches of green – stands of crab-apples blushing in municipally planted verges, brambles scrambling along the canal towpath, voluptuous plums plopping out the trees in my doctor’s carpark, unpicked and uneaten, plump rose hips, reddening haws, saffron and crimson rowan berries, elderberries still green but starting their rapid sprint to black, sloes with their dusky bloom just beginning to form.  There is fruit everywhere and it is free!  Which is good because I am skint…

Yesterday I went out to emulate those autumn days of my childhood and gathered damsons from a park.  The branches were bent almost to the ground: it took barely twenty minutes in the wet grass and warm sun to pick three kilo’s of lovely purple fruit.  There is something soothing about a mechanical task:  you do not have to drive yourself to completion, merely stop when you have had enough and it requires no particular concentration.  You just get lost in the task and it holds your attention just enough to distract you from the Dog’s low whining and growling.  Back home, having weighed and cleaned my booty I realised I had had enough and decided to leave the jam-making until the next day, but each time I walked past my huge bowl of fruit it gave me a little glow of anticipation.  The next day’s jam-making session was similarly soothing, the radio on in the background, steady stirring, no rush, waiting for setting point to be reached without having to push myself to make it happen.  And the smell!  Sour and sweet and delicious.

So now I have two dozen jars of deep red jam sitting in a row waiting for labels and giving me as much pleasure every time I look at them as a work of art:  the pleasure of knowing that through the winter when we want a little sweetness we have it in jars; the knowledge of how delicious it will be (because I checked – quality control you understand) and the satisfaction of having made it myself and, like my grandpa, having made it almost for free, give or take a couple of quid for the sugar.  And the pleasure of being part of something – natures huge autumn bounty – so much bigger than myself, even in such a small way.

And there is something else – preserving is about the future, and making something to enjoy in the future is like a little promise to myself that I have days of enjoyment ahead:  I will eat some of that jam, some day, without the Black Dog sitting on my feet.

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Everything is urgent and important and also more than you can actually cope with when the Black Dog is your shadow.  It’s all serious and it’s all a serious mess.  There is no time or energy for fun or frivolous activity.  You live in the land of Must, Should, and Ought To.  Want To doesn’t come into it.

An old colleague once commented to me that when his wife suffered from Post Natal Depression ‘she lost all her silliness’.  I want to be silly again.  To feel so safe and secure that I can waste time because I have enough to waste, become absorbed in some unimportant task because there is no imminent emergency that I must watch out for.  So today’s task was simply to play.

I have company for this – my little toddler regards play as the least frivolous and most important activity (next to eating) in which a person can engage.  Actually, sometimes eating comes second.  So today I have followed his lead.  When we went to the shops and he wanted to detour down an interesting alley, instead of hurrying him along I just joined his exploration.  When he wanted to run and skip I swallowed my embarrassment and ran and skipped with him.  In the park I played with him rather than standing patiently at the side of the swings waiting for him to finish.  I watched Doctor Who and did a jigsaw after his bedtime (am I seven or seventy?) and then wasted more time looking up cartoons of the character who turns play into an artform – Snoopy.  Snoopy spends vast amounts of time absorbed in play.  He isn’t escaping from his life – his life is peachy – he just likes spreading his wings from time to time.  He embarks on long and elaborate make-believe games, goes off on adventures, plays pranks, dances for sheer joy.  I need to get my Snoopy on from time to time because the little moments of play in my day today had a big positive effect on my mood that lasted for hours after.  And the delight my little boy took in my joining in showed me how much more he would like a playful Mum than the one who is doggedly trying all day to stay on top of a to-do list.

Here’s where I found the many make-believe characters of Snoopy – enjoy!

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Dream A Little Dream Of Me

The Dog stinks.  His hairs get everywhere.  He constantly gets under my feet and trips me up.  It feels like he is everywhere I go.  He has been in residence for so long now that I can barely remember what it was like before he came or imagine that things will ever go back to normal after he leaves.  I feel like I have lost the future – there is only a miserable now and I am stuck here, Groundhog Day style, permanently.   So my task for today is to sneak out without the Dog and daydream about what I will be like when I am well again.

I am a warm and wise mother, enjoying a respectful and kind relationship with my children; our home is organised so that I don’t spend the lion’s share of my energy and attention getting things done; I spend time listening to myself every day and follow my ‘inner light’; I feel that I belong in a web of relationships rather than hanging off the ends of unconnected threads or worse still in free-fall; I have fulfilling paid employment that fits in with raising my boys; I feel valued, feel that someone wants what I am offering – at home, at work, socially; I am making and creating things, planning and completing projects frequently; I know where my career is going even if I have pulled over for the moment; we are on-budget, living and eating well; as a family we have fun together;  I engage with this stage of my life instead of worrying about what the future holds; I shine at something; I relax and have fun frequently; I contribute to other people’s lives, make their lives brighter to some extent; I am well-groomed; I am fit and slim and strong; I let go and go with the flow from time to time without fearing the consequences; I take pleasure in life, feel satisfied with where I am and able to change or live with the unsatisfactory bits of my life; I am not afraid; I can do.

Writing it all down makes me realise that I am much more than my depressed self – almost all these statements have been true of me in the last two years, many of them in the last twelve months, some even within the last six months:  I know it is not outwith the bounds of possibility that I could be this person again.  So this task heartens me.  But I am not going to get there by sitting still and waiting for it all to come back.  As Winston Churchill said “If you are going through hell, keep going.”  The only way out of this is through it – I have to find my way back to being this person.  So these are my top rungs, now I have to work out what are the many little steps that well bring me to the top again.  I want to get back up – I don’t want to be a seething cauldron of rage and circling resentments, nor a heap of hopeless incapacity.  I want to be me.

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Count Your Blessings

Keep a gratitude diary – how many times have I read that this really helps to boost your mood?  It should be on my Dog-walking route, I know that.  But… I don’t want to do this one.  In fact, it was supposed to be yesterday’s task, and I ditched it because I don’t want to do it.  I am afraid that I will realise I have no blessings to count.  I am insulted by the idea that something so small could be all it takes to chase away a Dog so big I haven’t been able to shove him out the door yet.  And more than either of these it is just so cheesy.

It’s time to tackle it though, so I am going to make it easier for myself by re-branding it.  I am quantifying my intangible assets.  Here we go…

I am fortunate to…

  1. have a lovely and sympathetic husband
  2. be raising two beautiful, interesting and fun boys
  3. be able to afford two homes – one to live in and one to rent out and live off
  4. be able to earn some money while I am a SAHM even if it’s not the way I meant my career to go
  5. be financially able to take time to be a SAHM (even if I have a constant niggle of guilt that I am letting my career slide)
  6. Live in a lovely bit of my favourite city
  7. Be physically healthy and fit
  8. Be smart enough with money to keep us afloat on one salary
  9. have friends and a wealth of opportunities to make new ones if I ever get my act together to go out and do something new.
  10. have a good heart, and a kind disposition (currently hiding under the bed because they are scared of Dogs).
  11. Be highly literate so I can always find out what I need to know to do what I want to do.
  12. live in a country where women have equal rights, and where my children are immunised from life-threatening illnesses as a matter of course
  13. Have clean running water and sanitation in my house;  never have had to walk miles each day to collect dirty water for my children

OK, I do feel a little better for doing that.  Grudgingly.

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