Drawing closer to six months of depression recovery & sobriety this month.

The end of the year is here and I am inching ever closer to the six month checkup with my GP. I’m happy to report that since taking a break from the blog to focus more energy on my day-to-day recovery, I’ve stuck to my guns and and continued to take my meds each day, while also maintaining my sobriety, though I will say that it has been incredibly challenging, especially in the last month.

Call it a plateau, call it a dip, call it life throwing me a few curveballs in quick succession (To give some context: a work agreement with the first client I signed to my business ended abruptly, I slipped in the shower, hitting my head, arm and cracking open my toe, I got dumped out of the blue by someone I was starting to care about somewhat more than usual, two friends went through serious health scares, one of my housemates’ pets passed away unexpectedly, someone close to me made a life altering revelation to me and me alone, plus, I received a damn traffic fine for R2000 – this was yesterday in fact). No matter what you want to call it, dips remain a part of this thing we call life and I’ve made peace with that. Still pretty shitty to go through.

Like the waves of the ocean, things happen in ebbs and flows, and while the past month has been challenging in terms of external circumstances (essentially, adulting), I haven’t worried about dealing with these events, but rather been more concerned about potentially dropping my guard with regards to important self care boundaries I set up at the start of this journey in June. I have to admit did in fact drop a lot of the boundaries as a result of the external events, but I’m happy to report that with support from friends & family, coaching and therapy, as well as practicing saying no to people, I’ve gradually managed to navigate back out of the rumbling strip and am pointed back in a more positive direction: reaching 6 months of recovery, on December 17th.

For some reason, I managed to get it into my head that sobriety should make the recovery process “easier” or “faster”, make the meds work “better” than usual and would essentially mean that my mood and general energy levels would gradually improve until I was “fixed” from this whole depression experience, so to speak. To be fair, my mood changes were so drastic between months 2 and 4, that I could be forgiven for thinking so in the first place. My doctor was quick to correct this when I saw her regarding the slip in the shower, remarking that in cases with someone who has a family history of depression, it was important to note that a breakdown tends to require at least nine months of treatment, and even then, there are no real guarantees. Would have been useful to know this upfront and before I set my own expectations, but nevertheless, she got the information across without me throwing a fit.

She encouraged me not to assume that after six months everything would be miraculously better, and it did get me to rethink my approach to all of this. It was a bit of a bitter pill to swallow at the time (perhaps because deep down I already knew this, or because she was busy dressing my cracked toenail and I was having a mini meltdown), but I swallowed the pill nonetheless and have once again been reminded of something that has been central to this journey: you can really only take things one day at a time. There is no timeline, no rulebook, no right way to guarantee success. Nothing is promised and that’s ok. This perspective has allowed me to be more appreciative of the little pleasures in my day (which my Instagram has clearly been reflecting in recent weeks).

I also recently came to the realisation that mental health is a tremendously personal thing for everyone, depending on their journey and life story. Sobriety and taking your medication as prescribed naturally doesn’t hinder recovery and is encouraged by healthcare professionals, but I have realised it isn’t possible to apply general recovery principles to large groups of people, or to attempt to give advice to others that should be considered a ‘guaranteed solution’ for the other person, simply because it may have worked for me or made things a little more comfortable for me. I therefore now find pleasure not in giving advice, but rather in learning to be a better listener to the journey of others. I can only share my story and hope that it encourages others to take a step in the direction of mental health prioritisation once they are ready to do so and in their own time.

No other person on this earth can take responsibility for your mental health. Each person has their own journey to go on, and the best I can hope for moving forward is to have as many conversations about mental health as possible, in the process detaching from the self appointed title of “advocate” and essentially just allowing myself to be open to connecting with people who are brave enough to be vulnerable, and from whom I can learn a great deal too.

– 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.

 

I finally started a morning meditation routine, and no it didn’t take as much time and effort as I thought it would.

Before my depression diagnosis I used to schedule meditations into my weekday evenings after work, but I found myself becoming so very robotic and militant about them, that they almost became a burden and a source of anxiety when I simply didn’t have the energy to get to them, or when I was running late on a particular day.

Little did I know that I didn’t have to have a rigorous schedule regarding prioritising mindfulness, and it was something that you could do “until you were pulled towards doing something else”. There are no rules regarding how, when, where and for how long you should meditate on any given day. I had this Eastern idea (or stereotype) of doing so for hours on end in my mind and always thought I was failing if I didn’t want to do it for 30 minutes to an hour. The fact that I can be flexible with it comes from some great advice from the coach I’ve been working with, who told me she has been meditating for years and years, subsequently kicking her anti-depressants almost 20 years ago as a result of the long term benefits she has experienced from doing so daily.

A colleague at work told me to check out Headspace, a mindfulness app you can download to your phone. They provide ten days of short meditations between 3 and 10 minutes, so I decided to take the plunge and download the app last night, with hopes that I would get up and spend at least 10 minutes going through the first guided meditation. In the past I had simply listened to any 30 minute meditation I could find on Youtube, which worked for me at times, but often after 10 or 15 minutes I’d find myself starting to disconnect with the process as my mind starts to wander about the next task on my to-do list. Stubborn to a tee and wanting to “tick the box” so to speak, I would carry on with the meditation and hope that it would be beneficial to me in the long run, only really growing resentful about it over time. Well, as we saw, my breakdown in June still happened and I didn’t manage to reap many benefits from taking this approach, so it was time to try something else.

So this morning I completed the first of 10 training videos, and it was a good experience. It takes time and practice and consistency, but I definitely think it is going to help me quite a bit, because it already made it a little easier for me to be clearer about the day ahead, and helped me through the biggest stumbling block in my depression: getting up from bed and into the shower. Once I can achieve that, the day does seem to gain momentum slowly and surely, but the struggle is definitely not letting my anxiety and the worries of the day take over my mind before I’ve even lifted my head from the pillow.

The goal for now is to complete 10 of these 10 minute meditations between now and the end of the month, to see if I can start enjoying the process and learning to operate from a more mindful place in my mornings. I think it’s particularly important now that the doctor has taken me off the anti-anxiety meds, and I’m relying solely on the anti-depressants for the next six months. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – they are simply one tool to help me recover, not a quick fix or a “magic pill” – I’ll have to keep doing work in terms of my diet, get more active where possible, and also use positive support systems (like family and friends, as well as therapy and coaching) to cope with ongoing day-to-day pressures. I’ve also realised that while the lifestyle changes right now are not providing immediate benefits, they definitely will have affected my life six months down the line. I’m looking forward to going into 2019 with a renewed outlook and I’m taking stock of the lessons I’m learning on a daily basis. Hopefully I’ll look back on this difficult time with a smile on my face.

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.