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.

 

A few learnings from the first 40 days of depression recovery.

Today marks 40 days since I was diagnosed with depression, and this weekend I’m planning on celebrating 6 weeks of this new lifestyle, marking a milestone in the recovery process and congratulating myself on the progress made so far! I’ve discovered that usually I’m more than happy to be overly critical of my choices, but I never take the time to celebrate the victories, no matter how big or small. All that is busy changing and it’s starting this weekend, when I’m planning on doing something for myself as a small pat on the back for the progress.

In lieu of this, I wanted to share a couple of lessons and learnings from the first forty days of being on anti-depressants, being in weekly therapy and generally starting to open up about my diagnosis and reaching out to others going through the same things:

  1. How you navigate life’s curveballs plays a big part in the recovery process. Life doesn’t stop when you get diagnosed with depression. If anything, things continue to move forward, but making an active decision to keep on your path, not getting distracted by the happenings around you, however difficult they may be, you keep going a single day at a time. It has helped me a lot to stay focused, and I’ve proved to myself that my willpower remains strong, even through some tough adversities, like retrenchments at the office, or even turning 30, and having to turn down multiple requests for a “bender on the town”.
  2. Life will continue to teach you lessons and you need to continue to be flexible and adapt. Since I got sober and started taking my meds, I’ve become far more self-aware and have noticed where my day-to-day behaviour needs a bit of work. I’ve become acutely aware of being quite insecure in my work (wanting to prove myself, when I don’t need to) and have always been a bit of an overachiever – something I’m starting to work on now to maintain a bit better balance. I’m a successful marketer and business owner, and I need to start owning and acknowledging that.
  3. Friends and family will see you getting better, and forget to check in with you. This is not a negative reflection of them, but rather an impression that you are starting to get better, which is obviously a good thing, but they may assume that you don’t need to be checked in on anymore. This is not always the case. I wanted to share this, so you don’t have the expectation that people will check in with you too much as you go through your process, but be mindful (and take note) of the people who were there at the beginning, and always draw on that strength and support, especially on low days. I don’t need to be checked in on daily anymore, but I still love getting a random message from a friend, even just saying “hope you’re doing OK”.
  4. Recovery will mean getting to know yourself in a way you can’t understand when you start the journey. As I slowly regain my confidence, and gain clarity on the decisions I made in my 20’s, I’m learning so much more about who I am now and starting to look reflectively at my life, pondering where I want to continue to make changes, and also work more actively to keep certain negative influences (selfish people) at bay. It’s an evolving process and I’m happy for the clarity and the ability to distinguish between situations that are good for and ones that are detrimental to my recovery.
  5. My mood is drastically improving from this week. The doctor did say it would take 6 weeks for the SSRI’s to really do their thing, and I can feel it this week. I’ve started having spontaneous good moods in the evenings, and also found myself dancing, singing and just enjoying myself day-to-day a lot more from this week. My cheek muscles are starting to hurt again in the evenings, from laughing so much with friends and colleagues in the day. I’m compartmentalising my problems from a much healthier foundation, and saving dealing with them for therapy, choosing to focus on some of the smaller joys and pleasures in my day.

I’m thankful to be approaching week 7 already. I wanted to take a minute to show some gratitude for my friends, family, colleagues and readers of the blog, for helping me to keep motivated and to keep going on this journey. I’m only 20% into my six month treatment, and there is a long road ahead, but I’m feeling optimistic about the process and the changes taking place in my life. They’re starting to feel big for some reason, they’re starting to feel life-changing, life-altering in fact. I still have a feeling something big is coming and that I’m preparing for, and I’ll be ready as a result of facing my depression head on. Hope you can get the strength to do the same, and remember, you’re not alone in this.

Conrad was here.

 

Why I left my depression support group in the first month of recovery.

No, it wasn’t because I’ve started feeling better and I thought I didn’t need to go.

On the contrary, I’m committed to finding a support group that works for me, but unfortunately this wasn’t as automatically a good fit as I had hoped. I liken the situation to going to a therapist for the first time, and just not clicking as much as you had hoped, and deciding that you need to look for an alternative.

My expectations going into support group meetings were to have an open platform to share, to be able to talk to other people about coping mechanisms for anxiety and depression, and to celebrate small victories, like opening up to others about your depression and breaking down stigma barriers. This wasn’t quite true for what went down and it meant that I had to think long and hard (and talk to friends and family) about whether I was going back or not.

My first red flag was – to no fault of the group itself – that I was the only male at the session. This wouldn’t usually be a problem, but I found that a lot of the discussion in the group was centred around female issues and that built up a rapport of support for each other quite closely related primarily to these specific issues. I’m more than open about talking about these things (I grew up with two sisters who I am close with and have always gravitated to female friends), but it was really just the realisation that I felt quite othered while sitting there, now so much more aware that there is a bigger stigma around talking about depression among men, but also acutely aware that I didn’t quite fit in with the group. I cracked a joke about being the “odd one out” but I could also tell that having a male around made a few other people quite uncomfortable to share, which is not something I wanted to be contributing to, especially as these ladies had taken a big step towards their recovery by showing up to the group in the first place.

The second thing that threw me off a bit, was that many people decided to use the group as a pseudo-therapy session. My expectations were clear – I don’t necessarily want to carry what I’m dealing with in therapy through to a broader group of strangers, but I also don’t think it’s fair to just offload your baggage in the meeting and to make the session about yourself only. I wanted to have engaging conversations with others about what they had tried, what had worked for them, and what hadn’t. I wanted group to be a tool that would help me generate positive momentum, rather than being a space where it’s just about talking and venting. I understand that sharing can be a big deal for some people, and it can be an important factor of recovery, but my type A personality possibly just isn’t comfortable with not feeling like we’re actively doing something to get from where we’re at now, to where we’d like to go.

I think the key to finding a good support network around you is to make sure that you feel 100% comfortable, supported and that you can connect with the group. It wasn’t just about being the only male in the group, but also because the group mainly had people that were a lot older than me. I understand that dealing with depression and anxiety is a lifelong battle, and I take nothing away from the group being set up the way it is, but simply put, I need to be able to talk to people who are still working full-time, possibly those who have experience being an entrepreneur and running a business, and also those who have a better idea about millennial struggles in 2018.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, perhaps I had other ideas for what group will be, but I also think it’s important to be firm with myself about what will help my recovery, and what won’t. I could attend these meetings and take on a lot of the baggage of the other members, which is something I’ve always struggled with, but I’m doing my best to set some healthy new boundaries in my life in order to prioritise my recovery. It remains a work in progress, but I feel like I’m heading in the right direction at least. I wish the group I left well and hope to find one that suits me a bit better soon.

Conrad was here.

First day back at work: check.

My first day back at work since I was diagnosed with depression was both wonderful and incredibly weird.

It was wonderful because of being back around the positive energy at work and I felt the love from both the direct team I work with and the extended company team as well. Lots of people came in for a quick hug and to say they were happy to have me back, but very few people discussed my diagnosis with me, which I think is testament to the fact that there is still so much stigma attached to opening up about depression. Nobody knows how to approach the topic and it was evident that some people were uncomfortable discussing it, especially in an open plan environment. I did have a few private conversations with people, and quite frankly thought I would be able to speak more freely about it, but in many ways the victory for the day was showing up, and not necessarily starting a conversation about mental health just quite yet. It’s something I’d like to get to once I’m back in a better routine as it is something that is a part of my journey now, though I didn’t want to rush anything on a day that I felt a little out of sorts.

The weird part of the day was not ploughing through e-mails or sitting in a few meetings, it was how much I struggled to concentrate as a result of the anti-depressants. I found myself zoning out quite a bit, unable to really apply myself to a single task, rather being a bit frazzled and frantic and trying to get to a bunch of different things at the same time. I had a small stint of anxiety in the middle of the day but I managed it without having to involve anyone else. For day two, the approach is to tackle a few specific tasks but not to push myself too much. While my anxiety levels have been manageable over the last day or so, I can definitely feel it kicking up a gear when I start to think about also managing my work contracts as part of my business (which I run on a part-time basis) and throwing more only my plate at this stage. I’ve got to find a way to better manage my time and also not jump straight back into 150% like I had been operating at previously, as I’ve got to start showing more kindness to myself and being more strict about my limitations.

Another learning from yesterday was that I’ll need to take care with how I manage my meals back at the office. I didn’t pack a particularly big lunch, anticipating that my appetite would be low as it has been in the days prior, but I ended up being rather ravenous by lunch time, which was a first since I started taking medication two weeks ago. It resulted in me buying a muffin and drinking a second cappuccino, which was a big mistake. The caffeine really did not do well with my system, and I was up very late and quite ill and nauseous both last night and this morning. I can only take it as a lesson and a learning and adjust how I operate moving forward. This morning I packed a sandwich, three pieces of fruit and will only be drinking Rooibos tea today. Managing recovery from depression, especially when you’re on medication, definitely requires some lifestyle changes and adjusting on a day-to-day basis. Certain foods are just not going to agree with the medication, and it is up to you to do your research, try a few things, and see what works for you. I’m still figuring it out but am very aware of how an excess of sugar and caffeine wreaks havoc on my system now.

The good news is that I showed up for day two of work and am taking today as it comes. It’s the best I can do for now.

Conrad was here.

We set physical health goals, but what about mental health goals? These are mine.

All through my late teens and my early twenties I set a lot of physical fitness goals. Run a half marathon. Lose 10kg’s. Jog five times a week. Walk three times a week. These were all usually achieved, as I tend to be someone who gets almost militant about achieving personal goals. It’s a blessing and a curse, and part of the reason why I ended up being diagnosed with depression in the first place. I’m learning to be a bit less rigid and more adaptable, which is part of what I’m working on with a life coach at the moment.

I find it incredible that we’re always quick to set physical health goals, but that mental health doesn’t get the same treatment. I can’t recall once in my life – other than in the last two weeks – taking time to prioritise what is going to be important in terms of my mental health and wellbeing as someone who suffers from depression. I’ve always been happy to accept that you simply get over what you’re feeling or going through, the phrase “get on with it” usually rings in my head, and subsequently my depression has crept further and further into my life, causing chaos across all spheres.

There was a stage a few weeks ago, before I was diagnosed with depression, where I wasn’t able to see past my 30th birthday, essentially, past the end of this month. I was in a very dark, suicidal place, which I am glad I can talk about in the past tense.

A useful recovery exercise for me has been to map out some short-term (6 month) mental health goals, which not only assist in keeping my recovery on track, but also helps me to see past just this month, this day, and this very moment. In a lot of ways, recovering from depression is a day-to-day process, and I wouldn’t advise on setting up a new five year plan when you’re in this state of mind, but some short-term checkpoints can really help to keep you motivated and also help you to have something positive about your journey to share with loved ones. Your recovery doesn’t have to be all “yes mom, I’m doing ok today”. Your goals provide context and others will be encouraged to support you along the way.

So what are my mental health goals for the next six months? I’ve tried to highlight them as simply and clearly as possible.

  • Quit drinking alcohol while you are on anti-depressants, to give your body the best possible chance to settle and readjust. This is something I haven’t spoken to any of my friends or family about, and am waiting to talk about once I’m a little further into my recovery. I haven’t even had the urge to drink anything since I started the meds and quite frankly I don’t need another reason for my body to feel worse. Ironically, people like showing up at my place for support, bottle of wine in hand.
  • Meditate three times a week. This one is tough, as I usually struggle to prioritise even just 15 minutes for myself at the end of the day. I’ve learned that it doesn’t need to be rigid and for a fixed amount of time, sometimes simply sitting in silence, practicing mindfulness for a few minutes, can make all the difference. In the long run, I’d love to make this a daily practice, but I’d like for it to draw me in. No more swimming upstream to make it a part of my schedule.
  • Take anti-depressants for at least six months. The doctor did warn that after a month, when I feel better, I’ll get the urge to go off the meds. I’ve committed to following through with the meds for at least six months, with the option to extend to a year if need be. Slow and steady wins the race. I’ve given over to the fact that I can’t control how this disease makes me feel by simply hoping I’ll feel better soon – the meds are an important tool in this regard.
  • Go to 15 therapy sessions. My medical aid has approved 15 free sessions based on my diagnosis (a ‘severe depressive episode’), which I need to use before the end of the year. This is major, as I would not otherwise be able to afford the sessions. I’m starting with therapy tomorrow and will continue weekly through until October.
  • Keep talking about your mental health to others. This includes what I consider a new calling to be a mental health ambassador of sorts. This blog, coupled with ‘real world’ conversations, has the power to reach people from all walks of life, and hopefully will encourage others to start a real conversation about how difficult depression can be to navigate. I’d like to explore becoming a mental health ambassador at work, and will be talking about it HR and my line manager about it once I’m further along in the process.
  • Write three blog posts a week. I’m aware that I’ve had the luxury of writing more over the past week or so, considering I’ve been off from work. Writing is therapy for me, nothing else. I am however aware that things will not always be as simple and that life will happen, and things will get busy again. I’d still like to make my writing a priority, as this blog is a big part of my recovery process. I’ve prioritised writing three posts a week for the rest of the year as one of my goals and am going to do my best to stick to this (so stick with me, won’t you?).

Perhaps you can draw some inspiration from my list. I also believe it’s important to make them fluid. Life happens, so navigate them to the best of your abilities. That’s not to say that the goals should be taken lightly, but also remember to go easy on yourself.

Recovering from depression is a marathon, not a sprint. Some days the list will seem impossible, others it will be the only thing getting you out of bed. It’s all about rolling with the punches. What are your mental health goals? I’m rooting for you!

Conrad was here.