Friday, 13 April 2012

Rethinking Depression, Virtual Book Tour

Today is the day I welcome Eric Maisel back to my blog again (well, technically speaking it wasn't this blog he visited last time but it was still my blog). Last time it was to talk to Eric about his book, The Van Gogh Blues, and this time it's to share his latest book, Rethinking Depression: How to Shed Mental Health Labels and Create Personal Meaning.

If you have visited my blog in the last couple of weeks then you'll know that I've just emerged from chronic depression/a long-running existential crisis but back in February when I first purchased the Kindle version of Rethinking Depression I had barely accepted that I was depressed, let alone imagined that I would emerge from the darkness any time soon.

Eric's latest book builds on the ground he explored in The Van Gogh Blues but it is not just a semantic restatement of those ideas, it challenges the very foundations that book was based on - Rethinking Depression feels to me like the work of someone who is running out of both time and patience with the world and is therefore determined to get their message across as clearly as possible to rouse an audience from their unquestioning slumber before it is too late for all of us. And Eric's message couldn't be any clearer or more provocative - in short, the long-standing trend towards defining sadness as depression and treating it as a medical disease serves only the purposes of the medical industry and not those of the patient. His aim is to "point you in the direction of your own knowing." and help the reader question whether depression really exists.

Given that I had been diagnosed with depression and prescribed anti-depressants by my GP less than a month before I started reading Rethinking Depression you'll understand why Eric's assertion was a somewhat bitter pill for me to swallow. His words chimed deeply with my own knowing (as vague as that was) but at that very same moment I was putting my faith in modern medicine to provide me with a safety net while I continued working with my therapist to try and step away from the metaphorical cliff's edge that I found myself beside when I awoke every morning. To say that I was conflicted while reading Rethinking Depression would therefore be a massive understatement.

Eric's argument isn't that a deep unrelenting melancholy doesn't exist but he offers some pretty persuasive arguments for why those feelings of despair and meaninglessness do not add themselves up to a medical condition. What Eric seems to be aiming to do with his latest book is no less than achieve a monumental paradigm shift, one reader at a time. Rethinking Depression challenges the reader to enter into a conversation about the current state of the mental health industry and invites us to step up to the plate, stand still for a moment and decide to force our own life to mean something despite all of the barriers in our path. Although Eric doesn't offer all the answers, because only we can decide what makes life meaningful for us, he does offer some unflinching words of guidance to help with the journey:
"Decide to live until death wrests away your freedom."
"...create your life-purpose vision and then [...] do the best you can."
Eric's vision for the reader seems to be that they choose to fight the good fight, creating meaning in their own life day after day, year after year, moment to moment. To paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes it requires us to do nothing less than get to the simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity and to ignore the temptation to either exist in the mediocre, meaningless simplicity on this side of complexity or to lie down and try to make ourselves at home within the complexity itself. Now that I finally feel like I emerged from the chaotic, dark complexity that I made my home pretty much all of my adult life I am re-reading both Rethinking Depression and The Van Gogh Blues with new eyes and I can already report that the view from here makes it worth every step of the climb. I feel like I'll need to review both books again next month to do either of them the justice they deserve.

You can see what other folks think about Rethinking Depression by following the blog tour schedule on Eric Maisel's website. Rethinking Depression is available from Amazon in Kindle or paperback format if you'd like to enter into the conversation yourself.

NB: Any money that I make from the Amazon affiliate links in this blogpost will be donated directly to the Maytree Respite Centre.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Hope Still Shines for You

I'm excited to announce the first track to be generously donated to my 'Saving the Only Life I Can' project - I first heard this track by Nicholas Peters last year when my friend Katherine Jewkes (who performs guest vocals on the tracks) tweeted about it. I loved 'Hope Still Shines for You' from the first time I listened to it but in recent months and weeks I found myself listening to it more often - The combination of Nicholas' lyrics and Katherine's ascendant vocalisations both comforted and uplifted me and with every listen I tried to internalise the lyrics to form a protective mantra as I fought my way through the darkness.
"Through your pain and sadness, 
Longing times of gladness, 
Even through your darkness, 
Hope still shines for you."

Hope Still Shines For You by nicholaspeters

(c) Nicholas Peters - 'Hope Still Shines For You' cover art.
Nicholas is the first person I've approached to ask permission to use his track for this creative project and I'm hugely grateful to him for granting that permission so freely. I hope you like the track as much as I do - it has a sort of  mournful yet angelic Monty Pythonesque edge to it and I love it more every time I listen to it. You can read the story behind the track and listen to more of Nicholas' compositions on his website or his SoundCloud page.

Serendipitously, the cover art for 'Hope Still Shines for You' is very similar to one of my own self-portraits:

My Shadow Self

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Saving the only life I can

the journey

A few years ago I was introduced to the poetry of Mary Oliver during a creative workshop my friend Sophie Nicholls was running - the poem Sophie shared with us was Wild Geese and I loved it. I looked up more of Mary Oliver's poetry and came across one that stopped me in my tracks: The Journey. The whole poem is beautiful but it was the final two lines that made my bones vibrate and the words in those two lines have stayed very close by ever since:
determined to save
the only life you could save."
For more than a year I've been thinking about doing a creative project inspired by those nine words and the time has finally arrived ... It is with great pride and delight that I announce my 'Saving the only life I can' project. Over the next 12 months I'll be gathering together a collection of songs, music, poetry and artwork. Some of it will be pieces that lifted my spirits in recent months and some of it will be things I've created as I tried to find my way out of the darkness. I'll also be creating original work and asking some of the talented folks who inspire me to contribute some new work to the project. On the 24th March 2013 I'll release a beautifully crafted, lovingly curated collection for sale and any money I make will be donated to the Maytree Respite Centre and the Tuke Centre.

I'll release more details as the project takes shape and I'll be announcing my first confirmed contributor very soon.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

We were blind and now we see

do not cut here  -----------

I've been looking back through the photos that I've uploaded to my Flickr account over the past six years and it's hard to believe that I couldn't see how deep and fast the riptides of depression were flowing within me ... the slideshow below features the photos that I now realise were quite obviously symptomatic of my often fragile state of mind:

The levels of self-deception, secrecy and concealment are troubling to say the least - no wonder depression is sometimes called the "grinning madness" and little wonder that I felt like I was wearing a mask all the time.

Anyhoo, moving swiftly on.... As a first step towards repaying my un-repayable debt of gratitude to the Maytree Respite Centre and the Tuke Centre I've had an idea - If you like any of the photos within my Flickr Stream then you can freely download, print off, re-use them ... the only catch is that in return you have to make a donation to either the Maytree or the Tuke Centre:
I'm also planning a longer-term annual creative project to raise funds for both the Maytree and Tuke Centres and I'll be inviting you to contribute your creativity to that project as soon as I've got my head around how it will work :)

Sunday, 1 April 2012

I have been leading a life of quiet desperation

Twelve days ago I arrived on the doorstep of the Maytree Respite Centre near Finsbury Park. Maytree is a charity that offers a 'sanctuary for the suicidal'. I don't quite know what I hoped for when I first contacted them but it felt like I was standing at the edge of an abyss without wings or a safety net to break my fall. My arrival at Maytree was the culmination of a 38 year journey during which I had slowly, almost imperceptibly, descended into a decade of chronic depression (varying from mild to severe). I didn't dare to dream it at the time but walking over the Maytree's threshold was the first step towards finally saving my own life. When I left the Maytree's warm embrace five days later I somehow emerged from the lead chrysalis that had nearly pulled me under, laid down my impenetrable battle-scarred armour and felt like I was heading home for the first time in 38 years.

Choose life.

Only half a dozen people knew where I was during those five days, my husband, my twin sister, one of my cousins, my best friend, my therapist and my boss. Only another half a dozen or so knew I was depressed, let alone that I had been fighting an epic, hidden battle with myself for my own survival. When I look back at my photography, poetry, art and notebooks from that decade and beyond it's glaringly obvious that I was depressed but even when I finally saw my GP and was prescribed anti-depressants, at the end of last year, I still found it hard to accept that I was ill.
"Most [people] lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them" ~ Mis-quotation of a line from Henry David Thoreau's 'Walden' [source]
The first part of that line is from Thoreau and comes from Walden which was a manifesto for living simply. The full quote reads:
"The mass of [people] lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things." Henry David Thoreau [source]
For most of my adult life I tried, and failed, to either fix myself, find myself or flee from myself but, to paraphrase Jon Kabat-Zinn, wherever I went, there I was and in the end I ran out of energy, stopped running from the insatiable hungry ghosts haunting my mind and I did the only thing left to do - I faced myself. With the last sliver of hope left inside me I hoped that a small shift would take place while I was at the Maytree - a shift that would keep me safe for a little longer while I continued the battle against my own thoughts. I have no way of explaining the total transformation that took place on my last day at the Maytree and I'm not sure I'll ever fully understand it but it was like waking up from a nightmare just as I was about to hit the ground. In February this year I wrote in my notebook: "my feet and eyes feel heavy as I drag my despair through the snow." However fast I ran, I couldn't get away from the darkness that had descended and the dark void felt like it was starting to surround me on all sides. All I wanted to do was lie down and sleep until the snow covered my tracks and any sign that I had ever existed. I held tightly to any music and poetry that soothed my soul, if only for a second. I tried to memorise one of John O'Donohue's poems in the hope that it would come true if I recited it often enough: "I would love to live / Like a river flows / Carried by the surprise / Of its own unfolding." During my train journey home from London to York last Saturday I scribbled these words down in my notebook: "There's a river of kindness following me home." The next day I added these words on the same page: "it feels so amazing to be alive today."

I will never be able to fully repay the Maytree Respite Centre or those of you who held me in your thoughts while I was there but I will spend the rest of my life breaking my own (and society's) silence around depression and suicide. My new goal in life is to be the poster-child for suicidal recovery and be a voice in the darkness for anyone who is fighting their own battle. At an existential level it's true that we are alone in life and death because we are the only ones who know what it is like to experience the weight of our thoughts and feelings but there are people out there who will walk beside you while you fight to save your own life - keep looking for those people and never give up hope that you'll find them ... they are probably already much closer than you can possibly believe.

This blogpost is just the first of what I'm hoping to share about the bewildering journey I've been on. Last week I did a BettaKultcha talk about how the Maytree had helped me save my own life and I'll post the video of that talk (eeek!) as soon as it's available, then later this month I'll be hosting Eric Maisel on my blog as part of his virtual book tour for Rethinking Depression. In the meantime though, here are the slides (including the script that I used as the basis for my 5 minute talk):