Slipping up as I kick off month 4 of depression recovery, but making an active effort to bounce back sooner rather than later.

I could feel it coming on, but didn’t quite know how or when it would play out.

I used to have two favourite stress coping mechanisms: alcohol and food binges. I’ve discussed abstaining from alcohol until December quite extensively in previous posts, so I thought I’d give some time and weight to the latter. Wait, I have to give some time to the latter, as I slipped up yesterday and have a few things on my mind about it.

At the peak of my depression over the last few years, I was, almost daily, ploughing my body with unhealthy food. I would eat pizza at least 4 days a week, and take regular (daily) trips to different supermarkets to buy sweets, sugary cereal and as much chocolate as I could lay my hands on. I’d usually buy the same kinds of foods in the same period – almost in routine fashion. The list would be small but the items would always be in excess. A chocolate bar wouldn’t be enough, it would have to be a slab. One pizza wouldn’t be enough, it would have to be two, thick based doozies with so much oil I could start a fucking mine (ok maybe I’m being a bit dramatic). Since I started my depression recovery, I’ve been meticulous about eating healthily, cooking meals for myself and cutting down on the sugar, all in an effort to see how it would affect my mood and ability to get into a better mental and emotional space. Naturally this has had a great effect on my health, including the fact that I’ve dropped over 13kg’s, but I knew that temptation still loomed around the corner (this process isn’t a straight line after all), and I was wondering when it would be knocking on my door.

This is how I knew I was heading for a relapse of sorts in terms of the binge eating and it’s worth noting so I can feel it coming on in the future:

  • My sleeping pattern has been irregular again for the past week or so. I’ve been waking up very early (in the 4am region) and my body has required more sleep as I’ve been ill with flu for the past week. My mind hasn’t been able to switch off efficiently.
  • I missed therapy last week due to being ill, and I thought that taking a two week break between sessions would be ok, but not having the release and opportunity to share openly in a safe space (even if just for an hour) has shown me that it is not a good idea for me to go for an extended period of time without a session. That, coupled with travelling, clearly took a toll, regardless of how enjoyable my trip was.
  • I woke up and operated in militant fashion yesterday morning. I cleaned the apartment, organised my schedule by-the-hour (always a no-no, as you simply can’t maintain a 6am-6pm schedule in such a way without at least one thing being thrown out), got to work two hours early (dude!), and still expected that I would be able to get to everything I needed to and in the exact order that I had planned. Ironically, I also decided to preach to two people at work about spending too much time at the office (the nerve). Needless to say, by 3pm, I was fried and I couldn’t concentrate. Not only that, but I ended up staying late, until close to 6pm, meaning I had 11 hours at the office, something I used to do when I was in corporate and a promise I made to myself I wouldn’t do ever again, no matter how many companies I started or ventures I worked on, or how many adventures my career took me on.
  • I’m supporting a bunch of my friends through some murky waters, which is something I take on gladly and feel is part of a natural gift of connection, but also something that can take a toll and something I need to manage. It is so important for me to create boundaries in these situations, as I can get quite swept up, and distract myself from self care in the process. I’ve recently found myself worrying more and more about others, and slowly diverting attention away from my depression recovery, which contributed to what went down last night for sure.

For a bit of context I’ll tell you a bit about how I used to operate. In the past, I would feel awful and stressed, go buy alcohol and a ton of sugary food, switch my phone off for the rest of the day and simply lock myself away from the world, stuffing my face and numbing the pain with booze. This was my primary coping mechanism. I wasn’t on any kind of anti-depressant, wasn’t in therapy, didn’t have a coach, didn’t write, didn’t express myself in any kind of positive way. I’m happy to report that I didn’t fall into the same trap exactly yesterday, but it got awfully close and it was a nice reminder that I may not be doing as well as I’m projecting to people that I’m doing.

On the way home last night, after sitting in unusually long traffic thanks to the rain, I decided to stop at the local supermarket, ready to buy my one true kryptonite – a chocolate cereal box called Squillos, essentially a sugar laced, chocolate cereal with no nutritional value. I went through a phase in university where I ate a box of the stuff in a day and my weight spiralled from doing so. A whole box a day, yes. It had terrible consequences physically, not only to my appearance but in terms of my digestive health and I would feel bloated and tired all the time, compounding my depressive thoughts. As I was stopping at the supermarket, beating myself up for being so weak and not being able to resist the temptation, I kept thinking you know what you’re about to do, you know that there are always consequences when you do and in true human form (we are all flawed after all) I went in anyway and happily swiped my card for what certainly wasn’t an act of self care.

Let me paint you a picture. I went into the shop, grabbed what was the last box of the poison on the shelf (seems other people also like eating this crap), walked past the bakery section and grabbed two plain scones (because a box of cereal just wouldn’t be enough), along with a small Lindt dark chocolate bar, as well as a Tex milk chocolate bar. I approached the counter rather sheepishly, feeling guilty and ashamed that I was allowing myself to do this again, and ended up marching out of the store and home, avoiding eye contact where possible. It felt like a heroin addict getting a fix! What subsequently followed, was me switching my cell off – in fact, I had done it while sitting in traffic – hell bent that “tonight was my night” and “I didn’t give a shit” and I didn’t want to have to deal with anything. I got home, avoided my landlady, shut the curtains, threw all my things down (I didn’t even put my bag inside the cupboard, threw it on the floor), put PJ’s on with much effort, plonked myself in bed, put on an episode of Intervention (ironic, I know) and ploughed through the food in the space of a few minutes. Scones and chocolate down, I decided to tackle the cereal. I ate one cup of the stuff, and something told me that I needed to stop.

I think I realised that there would be consequences to a binge like this, and I simply didn’t want to put myself through more pain just because I was numbing my anxiety. There have always been consequences to a binge, especially when alcohol is involved, not only because I would treat people I care about like shit without feeling bad, but also because it compounded my depressive thoughts and usually meant that I would take a day or two to recover. It simply throws everything out and derails any progress in true all or nothing fashion and I hate that it’s such a big deal to me, but it is, and that’s part of the path that I am walking now.

Something changed in my head ahead of pouring the second cup of cereal. I got up, and poured out the rest of the box into the trash, and threw it away. This was a big moment for me. Don’t get me wrong, I was still feeling like I had stuffed my face, but I loved myself enough to stop and to attempt to regroup before totally spiralling. I switched my phone back on, it had been about two hours, and I had a bunch of messages, including one from my work friend Dan, who had tracked down a link to Robin Williams’ documentary about his life. Winning. A small victory, but a victory nevertheless. If I hadn’t changed my tune, I wouldn’t have been able to watch the documentary for the rest of the night (cell would have been off), I would have woken up feeling like shit, and also missed out on a couple of great conversations over the course of the night. A nice reminder that there is so much to be missed out on if you shut yourself away and numb your feelings. Reaching out and talking to people when I felt like this, hell, even writing about it now, is a better alternative and helps me to gain better insight and understanding around my depression and how I’m navigating it day-to-day.

I’m reminded now to keep being gentle and kind to myself as I tackle the rest of the week. Did last night mean I didn’t pack away the washing? Yes. Did last night mean I didn’t replace my car licence that arrived in the post, like I planned to? Of course. Did last night mean I didn’t was all the dishes like usual? Yeah. Did last night mean I didn’t plan out my Tuesday? Absolutely. I lose quite a bit of control over my day-to-day when I get into the militant, stressed mode and it’s almost like I’m just trying to get through, almost zombie-ish and unaware of the fact that I’m spreading myself too thin.

Sure, last night had some consequences for how I’m starting my day, but are they all bad? No. I might have woken up at 3am, but here I am, writing and sharing and showing that the journey is not all rainbows and butterflies. I want to give last night sufficient weight, and acknowledge that it’s something I should address in therapy today, but better than that, I know now that I have to be kinder to myself going into this new day. Here’s what I’m focusing on today:

  • Go into work when you’re supposed to, no earlier, no later. Yes, stay for the cupcake-making competition the HR manager is organising so excitedly for 5pm (yes that’s sarcastic but you know my sass game is real), but don’t stay longer than 30 minutes.
  • Avoid scheduling each second of your day. Write a few things down and tackle those if you’re able to. Don’t be too harsh on what you’re able to achieve today.
  • Prioritise getting to therapy today and play open cards in the session. Remind your therapist just how important your sessions are to your mental health prioritisation and that you’re worrying about the sessions coming to an end in 5 weeks.
  • You don’t need to eat rabbit food today to counter that you had a binge last night. You’re giving it enough time and energy by bringing it to light today. Pack a healthy lunch and grab a cappuccino with a slice of milk tart if you feel like it. It’s cool that you didn’t pack your lunch last night, you can forgive yourself. Yesterday was yesterday, you should acknowledge that you stumbled, but that you also recovered quite quickly, which is a great thing.
  • Remind yourself today that you can only do so much and that you’ve been doing incredibly these last few months. There are so many great things in your life, and there is so much to be thankful for. Your life is so different than it was a year ago. Remember, this is only the beginning! Keep going.
  • Shame passes, but resilience breeds momentum.

Conrad was here.

A 90 day mental health goal check-in, and turning my goals on their head in order to be more gentle with myself.

It’s hard to believe it’s already been three months since I started a new journey of mental health prioritisation, and so much has changed in my life since undertaking this process. While it remains a difficult process to navigate, there have been some incredible rewards from the work so far, including getting closer with my friends & family, opening up about mental health and depression and connecting with people from all walks of life, getting back out there and starting to date again, as well as generally waking up with a willingness to tackle the day; something that certainly wasn’t the case back in June.

This week was one of the more testing weeks for me, as I got sick with the flu for the first time this year and knew it would throw off my routine. There were two key observations from getting ill that I wanted to share with you quickly today. The first, was that I used to get sick with precision in August of each year (my GP commented on this a year or two ago). I would reach burnout from not taking sufficient leave and getting enough rest, and my body would shut down like clockwork. We’re in September now, so it seems the spell has been broken (is this something I should celebrate?), and prioritising my self care has meant that instead of reaching breaking point from working too hard, my body has now simply had to adjust to the change of season. Secondly, my recovery from the flu has been twice as fast as it was anytime I can recall in my twenties. This would also be spurred on my the fact that I maintained a healthy diet this week and that my immune system – which is certainly stronger now than it was six months ago – can handle things far better. I started feeling ill on Tuesday, and by Friday I was feeling how I would usually be feeling after a week (my fever had subsided and I was just a little bit superficially congested still).

Getting ill also usually took a heavy toll on my mental health, and I would bomb out for days on end. While it wasn’t a total walk in the park, and I did go through my dips having to be in bed for a few days, I certainly feel like I managed the process a bit better and it felt like my mind, body and spirit were working together to try get me back to a healthier place. I also accepted help in places I wouldn’t have previously: I asked my friend Kate-Lyn to drive me to the pharmacy on Tuesday when I was feeling faint (ok, she insisted, but it was also a good sign that I could put my pride and stubbornness aside to accept I couldn’t do something on my own). Am I feeling 100% this morning? Not quite, and I don’t want to bullshit you into thinking it’s been a walk in the park. But I’m certainly closer to my happy, bubbly self than I would have been otherwise and I am thankful for that this morning.

Now that we’re heading into month four of my journey with depression recovery, I wanted to check in about the mental health goals I set for myself back in June. It was the first thing that popped into my head this morning and I was curious to see how I would feel about the goals I set for myself at the start of this process:

  • Quit drinking alcohol while you are on anti-depressants, to give your body the best possible chance to settle and readjust.
  • Meditate three times a week.
  • Take anti-depressants for at least six months.
  • Go to 15 therapy sessions.
  • Keep talking about your mental health to others. This includes what I consider a new calling to be a mental health ambassador of sorts.
  • Write three blog posts a week. Writing is therapy for me, nothing else.

So where am I at with these? As I mentioned, I haven’t had a drop to drink in 90 days, which quite frankly has had a tremendous effect on my mental health. I’ve been far more consistent and stable as a result and this is something that remains non-negotiable for me until I finish up 6 months of treatment. I have decided however, that even if I continue with taking anti-depressants next year, I’ll still allow myself the freedom to enjoy a glass of champagne or a drink as part of a celebration: I simply don’t see it as a realistic “it must never happen” parameter for myself. Where I started getting problems was from falling into a routine of drinking and not dealing with the issues in my life, or the day-to-day stresses I’ve encountered. Quite frankly, I also want to be able to enjoy the moments! It’s all about the how and why, and not drinking so I don’t have to deal with problems. This is something I’ll keep revisiting, especially as December creeps ever closer.

I’m not gonna lie, meditation has been difficult prioritise, and although I’ve talked to others about it, including talking to my coach about it, I just haven’t been pulled towards it enough to feel like it’s worth my while. Well, pulled towards it in the traditional sense. I downloaded apps, tried Youtube, got up early to meditate, tried it in the evenings, but it just didn’t stick for me over these three months. So I allowed myself some freedom. Time to readjust and not be so rigid (YAAS). Freedom to wake up and listen to music! Freedom to put on a playlist and dance my ass off (I literally am starting to feel like a contestant on a 90’s MTV dance show, Wade Robson comes to mind). Freedom to sit in my thoughts and to use music as a meditative reflection. Hell, I’m even listening to a playlist now as I write this post. Is it meditation in the traditional sense? I’m not so sure and that’s OK. Whatever it is, is allowing my mind to wander and for me to dream a little again, which is definitely a positive and something that might not work for everyone, but is working for me.

I’ve taken my meds for 90 days straight and haven’t missed a day, which I am very proud about. Friends and colleagues have opened up to me about how terrible it affects them when they miss their medication, so I try to be pedantic about this. I had a particular small victory that I’d like to mention here as well. My Nuzak prescription comes in packets of 30, so I have to go to the doctor once a month to collect the refill of the prescription. It’s also a nice way to keep track of how long I’ve been taking the meds. This week, having been ill and in bed, I did what I usually wouldn’t do (as I like sorting things out on my own usually), and asked my landlady if she would pick up the prescription for me, as I was too ill to go to the doctor on my own on Thursday. Not only a good exercise in knowing my limits and knowing when I’m too ill to be out and about, but also a good chance to normalise the process of collecting anti-depressants, talking about it to someone outside of my family, and being comfortable with them lending me a helping hand. Needless to say I appreciated her helping out greatly and it was also somewhat of a bonding experience for us on some level too. Simply put, reaching out is the way to go.

Therapy has been amazing, and I’ve completed 10 out of the 15 approved sessions through my medical aid PMB benefits. I still stand firm that therapy is a hugely positive tool for depression recovery, and if you have a good fit in terms of the therapist-patient dynamic (as I am lucky enough to have), hang on to it. This week I was too ill to go to my session, which made me very sad on the day and was quite the source of anxiety, but I also had to realise that taking care of myself meant not driving 40 minutes to town when I was rocking a fever and feeling like I was going to faint. Has there been a positive to doing this? Health-wise, absolutely. Has it given me some more time to think about what we talked about in the session last week? Absolutely. It also has given me the freedom to process a few conversations I had with family on my vacation last week, which were enlightening, helped me learn more about myself and them, and also brought us all closer. Nothing is a good or a bad thing exclusively.

I’ve certainly also worked hard to keep talking about mental health prioritisation to others, but it always feels like there is more work to be done. By starting up my new venture, Delve Deeper Coaching, and signing my first client, I have been further encouraged to keep talking to people about their mental health and having daily conversations. I’ve tried to listen more, and speak less (something that can be hard at times)! Checking in with someone about their mental health doesn’t need to be as formal as a session or even a sit down coffee with someone. You can simply take a minute or two to check in with a friend at the start of their day, or with a colleague in the kitchen at work, or if you bump into them in the parking lot before saying goodbye for the day. We don’t need to make mental health this big elephant in the room. We don’t need to set aside boardrooms and schedule meetings to talk about it. I believe my advocacy is making a positive contribution because it pops up naturally and spontaneously during the course of the day. Did I wake up feeling good this morning, and by lunch I was flat for some reason? Sure, it happens, but now I’m actually talking about it at work, I’m communicating my feelings to others in a non-disruptive way, in an attempt for them to also better understand the journey and to possibly learn something about their own journey too.

Last of all, have I been writing three blog posts a week? If you’re following the blogs, you’ll know that this has not been the case and I usually post once a week. This has largely been due to the fact that my therapist challenged me to keep myself in check on the blog (she knows me well enough). She expressed a concern a while ago that I might be putting too much “PR spin” on my writing (I work in marketing after all so it happens!) and she encouraged me to write from a place of authenticity and vulnerability. Preach Brene, preach. So I made the decision to write when I’m pulled to write, like this morning, rather than working on a rigid schedule and feeling an obligation to put pen to paper. I also write when I can feel that for the sake of my mental health, I need to. Last night I wasn’t in the best mental headspace, I felt lonely and vulnerable and there was a pull to project onto others (especially easy when you’re in a phase where you’re meeting a lot of new people), so I knew that this morning it would be good to hop onto the blog, and I figured what I should write about would come to me. This is a rather long post, so I guess it was meant to be this way! I love writing this blog and sharing my journey but the challenge isn’t how often I write, but that I keep it honest and real, even if that means two posts a month, or one, for that matter.

What I’ve found so striking from these goals, even in my reflections from my physical journal, is that I can be quite rigid with myself, frankly, unnecessarily hard on myself, with fixed (measurable) parameters determining the success of my goals. This is great in terms of business KPI’s, but I don’t think it works for life KPI’s. Goals require boundaries of course, otherwise you’ll keep worming yourself out of achieving them or simply convince yourself that someone else is to blame for not reaching them, but one thing I’m very curious about reading back and in my reflection is how militant I can be with myself when it comes to my personal development. “Quit drinking alcohol” i.e never drink again or you fail, “Meditate 3 times a week” i.e. if you do so twice you are a failure. Everything has very fixed parameters and there are limitations for flexibility. Simply put, fuck that. I realise now I need to readjust my thinking going into the second half of the six month anti-depressant treatment and I need to cut myself some slack. I’ve tried to rewrite my goals – correction – these came to me more spontaneously, through my own journalling, and I wanted to share what I’ll be focusing on for the next phase:

  1. Love and care for yourself. You are great, kind, caring and lovable.
  2. Ground yourself in the journey, not the destination.
  3. Manage and prioritise your mental health daily.
  4. Say no where necessary.
  5. Continue your heathy relationship with food and alcohol.
  6. Don’t self medicate.
  7. Nurture your relationships, especially those long standing connections where you’ve walked a long path with someone.
  8. Grow into your identity as a gay man with honesty and self acceptance.
  9. Continue to try to be more honest and vulnerable, living your life with openness and compassion on a daily basis.
  10. Know your limits and reach out when you need to.

Conrad was here.

 

What actually happened at the end of a five year plan I discussed in a magazine interview in 2013.

In 2013, I was interviewed for a publication called Career Compass, an opportunity that was set up by a friend. The article essentially detailed my career journey towards becoming station manager at the local radio station at 23 years old, which happened as a result of me gaining experience and working part-time while I was studying at university. It was meant to inspire other students to consider working alongside studying to build up their CV’s, before heading into the job market (something I would still recommend and I know is more of a requirement these days considering the global employment outlook).

I was rather shocked when, a couple of days ago, one of those dreaded Facebook memories popped up (thankfully not reminding me of the “Conrad Schwellnus is READYYY 2 PARTAY tonight” posts from 2007), showing that it had been five years since the article had been published. I was curiously interested in seeing how differently I felt now, all these years later, especially considering my new journey of self care and mental health prioritisation, and also to find out what my 30 year old self would have to say about how my 25 year old self saw and portrayed himself publicly.

While I essentially skimmed through the interview, scared I would be totally embarrassed by my answers, one question caught my eye; the dreaded “Where do you see yourself in five years?” humdinger, which possibly grabbed my attention as a result of the fact that it is now five years later (alarm bells in my head), and that I’m actually busy living the “end” of my so-called set out five year plan. Here’s how I answered the question in the interview:

“I’m a firm believer in setting up five year plans for yourself. Recently I stumbled across a list I had written for myself in June of 2008. We’re now five years from that point. Point 8 said “Get involved with the opportunities at MFM [92.6 Radio Station]. Make a name for yourself. While this is one point I have certainly achieved and I am proud of, there are other areas that I still need to work on. It’s a constant process of evaluating yourself and your life, and the harder you work on yourself, the greater the rewards.

Needless to say my 2018 list is currently in draft phase! In five years (when I turn 30), I see myself working in the music and broadcasting industry, but across more areas of the industry. I’m very interested in taking up a management role in a commercial radio environment but I would also like to pursue my other interests, such as songwriting, journalism and marketing.”

Here’s how I interpret the piece now, today, as I’m sitting under the covers, snuggled up and listening to the rain, on leave from work and taking a day to do whatever feels right. Please enjoy the running commentary that played over in my head from reading the answer out loud to myself this morning.

I can’t believe how much I wanted to control my life and my path. I can’t believe how rigid I was about my career and where it should go, what I was expected to do, and what path it should have taken. I can’t believe a goal was to “make a name for myself” and to so blatantly blow smoke up my own ass, and say that I have already achieved this. I can agree with constantly evaluating your progress, not constantly evaluating yourself (essentially I said you should evaluate who you are!). I have also learned that working hard is not the only way to reap rewards or to find joy in life. Sometimes life gives you gifts, and sometimes they can be as small as a kindness from a stranger, or a hug from a friend on a bad day.

I mentioned blindly that I still wanted to work in the music and broadcasting industry at 30. I worked for a major record label between 2014 & 2017, and it was a tremendously bad fit for my mental health. I was hellbent on a management role in an industry that wouldn’t be able to satisfy my soul, as much as I had wished it would. It must also be said, that I mentioned commercial radio in the interview not because I wanted a job in commercial radio, but because I assumed it would look good to a prospective employer. I had no intention of staying in radio and am shocked that I even said that back then as I knew it was never about the industry itself for me. What working in that industry was for me, was that it was always about connecting with the people and my team: this included individual development, goal setting and guiding potential in people wherever it was possible to do so.

I certainly am nowhere near where I was expecting to be based on the response to the question in the interview. I now work in the conservation industry (which I could have never predicted in a million years), as well as running a marketing consultancy called Delve 6, which has just signed its tenth client. I recently started up a mental health coaching business called Delve Deeper Coaching, signing my first client just this week, something I am tremendously excited about. Is my life worse off for being on this path, rather than the one I had expected myself to be on now? Very doubtful.

I could have never predicted that my career would have brought me here, even to this very blog and this very moment where you are reading what I want to share, and I wish I had given myself more freedom to enjoy the way in which life brought me here, highlights and rug-pulling-out-from-under-you moments combined. The years since I made “the plan” and the second half of my twenties can only be called a hot mess, as all of life tends to be and we need to get comfortable with things being messy! I made some good and bad decisions but I’m accountable to each and have taken as many lessons as I possibly can from it all.

I was convinced that turning 30 meant I had to “have my shit together” so to speak and that I’d have it all figured out by then. I wish I could have just given over control right from the start of my career, taken it day-by-day, and seen it as a marathon, and not a sprint. I may well have ended up writing more songs than the two I penned about my first love in my twenties (please stop laughing) and I may well have had the guts to submit them to the artists that I worked with on the daily had I not believed I wasn’t good enough and didn’t deserve to enjoy my life. All of that is busy changing thanks to prioritising my mental health and my general wellbeing and the past three months have really starting driving this point home for me in a big way.

Before I carry on with my day off, I wanted to share how I would answer the question now, at 30, and having started this new journey of self care, connection and mental health advocacy. Short, sweet and to the point, with the BS meter in check:

I don’t believe in setting up five year plans for yourself at all. In five years, I’d like to have lived out over 500 000 five minute plans. I’d like to have taken time to enjoy the journey, rather than focusing on what I think the destination should be. I’d like to be better at cutting myself some slack in each sphere of my life. I’d like to have celebrated the small and big victories, as well as continuing to learn from the losses and disappointments. I’d like to be encouraging others to take their lives just a few minutes at a time and to be living that very mantra myself, no matter how difficult it may be. All of this in honour of my physical, mental, spiritual and emotional wellbeing. I want to have connected with as many people from as many walks of life as possible, in order to learn more about myself and also nurture and encourage potential wherever possible. Let’s see how it goes and be alright with whatever the outcome may end up being.”

Conrad was here.