Monday, 22 May 2017

Thawing Out

I'm struggling my way up the steep and winding Rapaki track to the top. You're drained just running up the road to the start of the track. You hit the forest and the track opens wide and swallows you. You carefully step across the steel bars across the first animal stop and the sky appears again. Ahead the path is craggy and winding; the destination seems so far away. My breathing is heavier than usual. There's tension throughout my body. I feel like a shell of the runner I know I am. I'm just not there. Eventually the tracks levels off to a flat section and my breathing relaxes. I ease into a short downhill stretch, before the last daunting uphill climb to the top. It never seems to end. It's at this point I think of how this run encapsulates my depression. I acknowledge that life is harder than normal at the moment, but that essentially I'm okay, and if I keep moving forward - step after step - I'll get to where I want to go. I rounded the last bend and moved towards the top spreading my fingers to feel the cold kiss my fingertips. I feel like this moment was a turning point.

I'm reading John Kirwan's book All Blacks Don't Cry, about his struggles with depression and anxiety. I read it years ago and marvelled at how his inner turmoil was tearing him apart when the whole country assumed he had the perfect life. He writes about how he eventually reached out for help and how he has made himself well again - the work that he puts in daily to keep his life in balance. I am now reading it and relating far more to his experience. I see myself in his words. I saw him talk in Wellington years ago about mental health and he was inspirational. He took several years before he sought help. Initially he tried to guts it out, fighting it like it was another opponent to side step. Because of his example I recognised I wasn't okay sooner than he did, before I spiralled down too deep.

It's been a weekend of ups and downs. My wife has started to show signs of the strain that the last week has put on her. She's been unbelievable, taking on so much extra work on top of her busy job to keep the house running and take the pressure off me. Emotionally it's been tough for her. She's worried about the uncertainty that my depression has thrown into our lives. It seems complicated and messy right now. She's worried I'll suffer bouts of depression for the rest of my life. She hates seeing me struggle, the vacant look in my eyes when the clouds close in again. I told her I'll do everything I can to make sure I get well and stay well. I told her I'm worried she's putting too much pressure on herself. I told her I need to keep things simple at the moment, and that all I need at the moment is for her to focus on her work and at the end of the day I just need her arms around my shoulders. I told her that, while it's tough at the moment, this could be the best thing to ever happen to me.

The tide is turning. The anxiety is ebbing away and my mood is lifting by the day. My biggest fear at the moment is that I still feel like I've been turned to stone. I crave for a flash of joy or to feel truly sad. I haven't cried for days. I haven't been able to sleep for more than a week without the help of the sleeping pills I've been prescribed. I was dog tired the two days I decided not to take it and I still couldn't sleep. I just feel a bit numb. Last night I saw my wife's tears trickle down her face and I recognised her sadness, but also wished I could feel it too.

I've had some true moments of tenderness; hugging my daughter tight and telling her how proud I was that she was making decorations for her little sister's birthday party, kissing my wife's hand and in that moment reflecting on our life together and how lucky I am to have met my soulmate, seeing my youngest daughter's face on Skype calling my name, and when I kissed my eldest daughter goodnight and she said: "I love you so, so much Daddy."

I can't believe I'm quoting from Frozen here, but it's my daughters' favourite movie, and I have seen it more than a few times:

"Love will thaw a frozen heart."

I will feel again.






  



   

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Respite

On Thursday night I paced around my living room waiting to be picked up for a catchup in town with a few mates. I was shaking with anxiety, feeling so desperate I was on the verge of pulling out. But I decided to go and I'm glad I did. I told them about the depression because I wanted them to feel like they could speak up if they were struggling, and we chatted about it before moving on. They were supportive as I knew they would be. By the end of the night I felt great.

A couple of people have told me of the dark, dark place they found them self in with depression, one to the very edge of taking their own life. Seeing that they had clawed back to wellness and gotten their life back in balance is very inspiring. Seeing them thriving tells me I will get through this and also puts my current struggles in perspective. I feel grateful I called out for help early before I sunk too deep, that I'm physically fit, and sober, and that I have incredible support and love around me. I have the odds stacked heavily in my favour.

A good friend gave me the advice to: "Talk about it, and keep talking". Talking does help me, whether it is about the depression or anything. Having a connection to people is a lifeline. I'm finding isolation and silence the hardest conditions to navigate.

My youngest daughter has gone with her grandmother to the North Island. The night before she left, she came downstairs balling her eyes out saying: "I'm going to miss you Daddy!" That was hard. My wife and I wondered if we were doing the right thing sending her, but yesterday morning we kept things low key and she was far more settled and excited again about her big adventure. I got text reports all day yesterday saying how awesome she was and that she was loving her trip.

Yesterday was by far my best day since I started medication. It was the day I doubled my dose, and I felt the fog slowly lifting. I went to a morning yoga class which was absolutely brilliant for relaxing my mind, focussing the body and, most importantly for me at the moment, staying in the present. It was great for my breathing. As the class progressed I could feel the anxiety in my body ease. This will be a weekly activity. In the afternoon I went to Preschool to do my hour and a half helping the teachers pack up. One little girl was in such a happy mood it was infectious. Another boy helped me roll up the carpets. Spending time with the kids was healing. The teachers all showed their care and concern - one giving me a couple of wee easter eggs, and making me a cup a coffee as my anxiety returned and my mood, and energy, crashed. By the end of the day I was exhausted, but I felt my sharpness of mind had returned and my mood lifted, albeit temporarily.

Being around people is helping me. My counsellor gave me a piece of advice last week at the end of our session to try and avoid "turning into" the depression, and instead "turn out". I've thought about that quite a bit this week.

This morning I ran along the Heathcote River and watched the languid, steady flow of the water, wishing my life could be like that; easy, effortless, quiet, moving in a clear direction.

Right now my life is very simple; Sleep, medication, exercise, rest, staying connected, being with my family.

Those are the only things that are important right now. There's little to no room for desire, ambition or urgency.

In the last week I've become far more attuned to how my children and wife are feeling. One upside is I've deepened my bond with my children; looking them in the eye more, listening to them, and responding to their emotional needs in a far more connected way. Doing this has helped me recognise the ways they give that love and attention back to me; how much I need them and how much they need me. That is a gift. After nearly 21 years with my wife, our relationship has deepened too as we turn towards each other and discover the depths of each other's love and inner strength.


 




Thursday, 18 May 2017

All Things Will Pass

All things will pass. I know this, but I am afraid. Usually I'm in control of everything, but right now I feel like I control nothing. I feel like I'm slowly stripping myself back, but I am plagued by uncertainty about who I will be when I rebuild myself. Will I still be me? Do I even know who I am? Will things ever be the same again? Do I want them to be?

At the moment simple tasks are difficult; making breakfast, shaving, picking an outfit, making small talk. Making simple decisions has become a complicated business. I've just returned from a walk to the supermarket. My hands trembled slightly as I scanned my three items at the self checkout, and I stood paralysed when the machine commanded me to key in the code for the cous cous. I was just about to take positive action when the supermarket attendant moved in to help me. I miss my old sharpness and, till it returns, perhaps I should give the self checkout lanes a miss. Everything is taking me longer. I used to be able to rely on my punctuality but now I am finding myself hopelessly late for things and the more worrying thing is it doesn't seem to bother me (though I did get stressed out when I got stuck in traffic and was late to school pickup yesterday).

I have felt anxiety bubbling every time I've had to go out in public. For me it's just a simmering feeling of unease and uncertainty. It feels like all my nerve endings have been woken up and are standing to attention ready to riot. My breathing gets very shallow. Going to preschool yesterday was difficult (I resigned as Service Provider on Friday as part of the de-stressing process). For some reason being there was a trigger.

People have been popping in to visit. My parents ring every day, and my sister called from the UK this morning. Contact is good. It's nice to be able to talk. Today a good friend dropped off a cake she had made on behalf of the Preschool Board. People care, and it feels good.

I received this email from an overseas friend:

_________________________________________________________________________________

Sorry to hear you have been through the grinder and I really hope you will find stability and harmony again - you deserve it. I'm so pleased that you didn't use the alcohol crutch when it might have been the natural "comfort" to ease the pain temporarily. That is a major achievement for you and a blessing for your family.

You have been very brave through all of this, even though you probably did not feel brave. I have great admiration for people who are beset by these "invisible" illnesses. It is much easier to get support and encouragement when you break an arm or a leg than it is when you are struggling and there is nothing visible to show of the struggle.

You are blessed with a beautiful family - imagine the titanic challenge for someone who is in a home where there is constant discord and tension. They have the deck doubly stacked against them in their chances of being restored.

Cheering for you from across the ocean - you will climb this mountain, in the same way as you have become Soberman365.


_________________________________________________________________________________________________


I actually am glad I am at the stage of my sobriety where alcohol holds no appeal. I never even thought of drinking to 'help' ease the depression, because I knew it wouldn't help. I want to recover as soon as I can not sabotage my efforts.

As the anti-depressant medication builds up I hope things settle down and I start to feel better. There are signs some emotions are returning. Yesterday I felt frustration for the first time since last Friday (damn non-indicating drivers!!!). There are flashes of sadness, and flashes of joy. I have also felt very stiff and sore in my legs after my last couple of runs. I never really get much muscle pain from my running so I'm guessing it's the medication. I joked to my wife that it felt like I had four groins and they were all strained.

I am worried at the moment that my wife is taking on too much to take the pressure off me. I am determined to rest well now but start to contribute more. My youngest child is heading north with her grandma to visit family tomorrow. This will take some stress away but the next 8 days will be by far the longest I've ever been apart from her.  My daughters' arms around my neck is a great medicine. I'm going to miss her.

Tonight I'm going to see some friends for a monthly catchup. Tomorrow I will be doubling my medication. I'm looking forward to tomorrow.


Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Early Days

In the last few days my life has changed so dramatically I'm not sure if I'll ever get back to the way I was, or whether I want to. Since being diagnosed with depression on Friday I've stripped back most of my responsibilities in order to focus on getting well again, as soon as possible.

I've started on anti-depressant medication (Venlafaxine) and things have been so up and down. I don't know how I'm going to feel from one minute to the next (this will settle down as the doses build up and my body adjusts). There's no general pattern to my emotions, and nothing dramatic. It's more subtle than I imagined. Mostly I have felt generally flat, with frequent bouts of anxiety or fear. When the tears have sprung forth (which tends to happen in the morning) they haven't been precipitated by anything sad, mainly by a feeling of hopelessness.

Since Friday I haven't felt frustrated, or angry or sorrowful. I think the numbness is the scariest thing. For any of you who have watched rugby with me, you'll know I'm so invested in the result and I get so worked up and emotional it's like I turn from Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde. It's lucky the referee's can't hear me shouting at them. But on Saturday night I watched passive and emotionless as one of the most gripping games of the season unfolded between my Crusaders and the Hurricanes. I just didn't feel anything. It's like a whole range of highs and lows have been swept away leaving me feeling lost somewhere in the middle.

I think the biggest change is that I now accept I am depressed, and am no longer struggling to hide it or deny that it is happening. As my counsellor said this morning: "You can't be half pregnant." You either are or you're not. Letting go of the control I had, even down to taking a break from most of my usual daily tasks, has been a huge adjustment. My wife took Monday off to take the kids to school and preschool, and we spent the day together. We walked alongside the ocean in Sumner and had lunch and talked about everything. I am so lucky to have her unconditional support. She has taken a huge amount of pressure off me, but I'm conscious I don't want her to overburden herself. As I recover I'll build things back up.

I have really focussed on engaging with the kids these last few days. I'm concerned that they're okay and, while they know I'm not well at the moment, they are happy and coping well. That makes me feel better. I love those guys so much.

My mind feels a bit scrambled at the moment, which is actually making writing coherently a bit of a struggle. On Monday I popped into the bank to deposit a cheque, and after some confusion, worked out I was in ANZ rather than Kiwibank. I tried to order lunch in Sumner and told the waitress three seperate things before I remembered which dish I had actually decided on, leaving her a little confused. This morning I lost my keys (which usually never happens to me). When I finally found them I couldn't find my phone which I had just put down to find the blimmin' keys! I know this will all settle down in time. My counsellor has encouraged me to just relax and not take on too much in the next week or so.

I haven't lost my sense of humour. I am lucky to be fit (running helps a lot). I am staying connected to friends and family (support is important). I'm open about what's happening to me, because there's nothing to be ashamed of. People aren't ashamed when they get the flu after all. My wife and children are incredible. I AM going to get better. I think I will be better, and more empathic, human being for the experience.

I feel this blog is quickly transitioning from the subject of sobriety to mental health. So be it. The two are connected in so many ways. I had planned on finishing writing when my counter clicks over to 365 days next month, but I feel compelled to continue as I work through this depression. If you'll have me for a bit longer.


Saturday, 13 May 2017

Dropping the Facade

My last post (read here) was born from confusion and desperation - an attempt to explain and understand my struggles of late. Yesterday morning, I cried, vented and listened my way through my appointment with a very caring and professional psychiatrist at Christchurch PsychMed. My greatest fear was that she would say I was fine and send me on my way. She told me I ticked every single box for clinical depression, and talked me through the medication I will likely be taking for the next 6 - 12 months.

We talked about how I felt giving up alcohol had made it harder to squash my feelings down and regardless of whether it precipitated tipping me into this depression I didn't regret it for a second. I will say again: ALCOHOL WILL NEVER HELP WITH ANYTHING EVER. She agreed with me, but added that for people with anxiety it does work in the short term - as the alcohol gives immediate relief - but never in the long term. Alcohol is a "toxin", she told me (as I nodded in complete agreement).

The sleeping pills she prescribed sent me into the deepest sleep I've had for weeks. I needed it. Even after I woke up I lay in bed with a blank mind for the first time in forever. But now the facade has dropped. It was such hard work keeping how I was feeling hidden, and I no longer have the energy or will to keep the veil up (which is a little scary). This morning I struggled to make my toast and pour my coffee and just sat alone at the kitchen table with tears streaming down my cheeks, for no reason and every reason - my kids laughing and playing in the other room.

Yesterday I stepped down from my role of responsibility on the board of my daughter's Preschool. These people have become like another family. I felt torn between feelings of letting them down, and knowing I needed to take pressure off myself and look after me. I met with the head teacher who I had confided in earlier in the week, and she was amazing. I confided in a couple of friends late yesterday and they have been incredible, one sharing her own experience. The more you talk about these things the more you find common experience. I know I am far from alone. I'm lucky to have so many people around me who care and understand.

While my world is grey at the moment, my beautiful kids, my incredible wife, and my friends are providing me some light. I picture their faces and it provides me some relief.

It's funny how in the early days of my sobriety I poured out blog after blog of how I was feeling, several a week. Lately I've been lucky to have the inspiration to write one a month, but now I feel the need to rush to the keyboard and rationalise everything I am feeling in print. It seems to activate a part of my brain and helps calm me and ground me in a more productive reality.

I told my psychiatrist I was never going to drink "ever again" , especially now and her reply was a simple: "Good!"

Even though for a few fleeting seconds you think it will be the answer to all your problems, it isn't.

Right. I literally have 3 minutes till I need to take the kids off to swimming, and despite how I feel, life must roll on.







Monday, 8 May 2017

The Man in the Mirror

At all times writing this blog has been very much to help me and also, hopefully, to help you. I have tried to be as honest and open about the struggles of giving up alcohol and as positive about the triumphs as I can. In recent months I have felt the need to share my thoughts here less and less as I've become more settled in my sobriety. I don't know if this has been the right thing, but from a writer's perspective I can only write if I have something to say.

While alcohol in no longer occupying my mind, the absence of it as a my go-to, fix-all, coping strategy, has left me somewhat naked and exposed. A post by Mrs D on Living Sober recently about how quitting booze is just the start and the importance of the work you have to do afterwards, resonated with me a lot. Mrs D is often talking about how without booze to squash things down you have to face life, and your emotions, raw. You can't avoid it any more.  

My last post talked about quitting alcohol being the "best decision of my life", and it is, but in the last few weeks I have felt very lost, culminating in a break down of sorts. I don't know what else to call it. I revisited my counsellor at the end of last week. I began seeing her after I landed in hospital with a full-blown panic attack last year (my first), but haven't been since last December. She helped me through that difficult period, but since then feelings of anxiety have frequently bubbled to the surface, triggered by one uncomfortable situation or another - a racing heart, shallow breathing, a shakiness and a feeling of loss of control.

On Friday I tried to explain how empty I feel at the moment, how I lack energy, how miserable it has made me feel. I told her that my mind has been racing - a swirl of mainly negative thoughts - and how exhausting that is. I told her how when I finally burst out crying I felt bereft and desperate, my shaking hands reaching out for my phone to email her an SOS. During my crises I explained to my wife how I was feeling and in the same breath how guilty I felt about it because by anyone else's measure my life is pretty sweet.

I hate labels. Problem drinker. Depressive. Obsessive compulsive. Perfectionist. Optimist. Pessimist. They try to jam you into a specific box but most things in life are far more grey. For as long as I can remember, I have ridden a rollercoaster of ups and downs, not really knowing if I were actually depressed or just suffering the same peaks and troughs as every other person. I still don't really know. Deep down I felt there was something going on that wasn't right, but I've never known what to call it. I see now that I have suffered, am suffering, and perhaps it doesn't have to be that way.

My counsellor says I have probably battled anxiety all my life, and looking back I agree with her. I have definitely used alcohol to cope with social anxiety. Fear of failure is another big one for me, and I know I don't hold the franchise on that. I've wasted so much energy on it, it has at times hampered my enjoyment of life.

But the good news is I have options. I have enrolled in a Mindfulness Works course next month. My counsellor says many of her clients have benefitted hugely from it. I'm about to see a psychiatrist to assess whether medication could help. And I'll keep seeing my counsellor. It has already helped talking about it all, reaching out for help. My wife has been incredible; taking the pressure off me this weekend by looking after our kids, being supportive, truly understanding, worrying about me, loving me. She's my best friend and always will be.

I caught up with an old friend a couple of days ago, and he told me everyone has a "cross to bear" and that "everything will pass". I know I will be alright, because I'm prepared to work on it. I know that life is good. And I know that someone like me will never be helped by alcohol.