Saturday, 27 January 2018

From the darkest depths

I very rarely talk about my mental health. This isn't because I don't think it's important - when it comes to other people, I encourage them to talk and will happily lend a friendly ear if one is desired. I am, however, a hypocrite. Over the last year have I dabbled in burn-out, depression and what was, on reflection, probably chronic stress. At this stage I could probably write a book about how these things manifest for me, however this post is about climbing up after pulling myself clear. Apologies for the turns of phrase - I'm not a doctor and everyone's experiences with mental health are different. One of the reasons I don't talk about myself is the fear that someone who suffers with "proper" depression will call me out for just being a bit sad. I don't think that's the case, but I'm certain other people have a harder time with it than I do.

Anyway, this is about recovery. At rock bottom I needed a trigger to realise quite how bad things had become. For me, this was an argument with someone I hold very dear. It made me re-evaluate what was important in my life and decide that pushing ever onward was not an option - that I was threatening something inviolable. By this stage I had already put at risk my physical and mental health - neither things I am happy to lose for sure, but the slippery slope is not steep and it's easy to put something "at risk" without realising quite how much so. At this point several things happened at once, but the main thing is I pulled myself out of life and work. I then spent a week more or less asleep.

It took a month of doing almost nothing to start feeling vaguely right and slow the destructive cycles. Some of that was spent at home, some was spent with my parents and family. During this time I started programming again. Weird statement for someone with my job, but my role no longer revolves around making things. This is fine and acceptable, but one of the difficult parts of shifting into more strategic work is that you lose the emotional kick of being able to look at that thing you built today. Starting it again in my spare time gave me the chance to set goals and achieve them. I could look at my work and be proud of the progress I was making. I could give myself little kicks of positive emotion.

I wrote a lot of code over Christmas.

With some kind of positive feedback loop in my life, I started asking myself what makes me happy. If I walked away from my current life and started again, what would I do? Why do I want to get up in the morning? When I managed to pull back and analyse my life I was still lacking any real reason to want to engage with the world. My way of dealing with that is to directly face that question and pick it apart until I have the beginnings of an acceptable answer. I'm a middle class human living in an affluent country - I am aware that I have done well in the lottery of life and so I have options that are not available to others. I should be able to find a positive place.

I'm not going into the details of this, but suffice to say I am still working for the Civil Service. For the moment, my long-term goals are still in-line with working there. There are plenty of interesting challenges which will keep me engaged and enthused and which I hope I will approach in an effective and useful way. As an aside, this is the point I want to remind people that "no feedback is good feedback" is a terrible way of treating your colleagues. By all means say if something is bad, but if someone is doing a good job make sure they know. We shouldn't find our sense of self-worth through our work but while we seek enlightenment many of us do. Admittedly, I feel a bit of a rat writing that here as I know a few of my colleagues occasionally read my blog so if that's you tune this bit out and mutter something about fishing for compliments.

That gives me a direction for my life for the moment, however it doesn't help me much in the immediate future. For the short term I need to put some positive things in my life or remove some negative things. These need to be short-term, or at least have tight feedback loops. I'm not in a position to start a six month project that will only make me happy at the end. One of the key things that makes me unhappy at the moment is the deterioration my physical well-being, a combination of my weight and fitness. This is dangerous as losing weight can be soul-destroying. Given I'm living in London I decided to adopt something of a Londoner mentality and throw some money at the problem so I'm giving Alevere a try and so far I'm pleased to say that it is working. I can use my goals within this programme as a framework to trigger other nice things. I'm not sure what yet, but I've just started writing D&D again so I may well treat myself to props or whatever at key milestones.

I can also use the same milestones as a trigger for new, positive behaviours. Deciding these up front means that when the time comes I don't have to think so much and make it far more likely I'll get on and do. Hopefully that will let me ride any emotional wave and keep going, instead of stopping, losing momentum and having to restart again. For instance, I'm going to go back to Yoga when I reach a particular target weight. I haven't decided all of these things yet, but just thinking about what I can do is a positive exercise in and of itself. The timescale for all this is about three months so hopefully by the end I'll have rebuilt a positive life and figured out how to make myself happy in a non-destructive way.

I'm not better yet, not by a long shot. I am, however, moving away from the dangerous place I was in a couple of months ago. The word "triggered" is used far too much in modern parlance, but I can definitely say I know some of my own trigger points and still see them affecting me. Less so now, but the road to recovery is not short. I'm incredibly grateful to the people who have supported me in various ways through this time.

I'm writing this as a note to myself in the future. Maybe it'll be a me who is having a difficult time again and needs to remember that there is a turning point. Or maybe it's a me who is thinking back and wondering what the fuss was about - hello future me, you were not overreacting. If anyone else finds it helpful then I'm glad and please do reach out if you'd like to talk.