In the last couple of years as we approach Christmas I have attempted to write a constructive blog or two, detailing the challenges that the festive season brings in managing my mental health and looking to draw a balance between these and the steps I am taking to address them.
These year is somewhat different. For various reasons, the build up to the big day has left me feeling stressed and distinctly removed from the Christmas spirit. I have been barely involved in present buying, scant cards have been sent and I find myself unable to think past the end of the working week.
The overriding sense is a feeling of tiredness. I have been regularly coming home from work exhausted, often going to bed well before 10pm. Saturday has become a day of recovery, punctuated by moments of low mood and high temper, my energy and tolerance levels gradually returning to normal by Sunday, just in time to begin the whole cycle again on Monday.
I also feel a pervasive, underlying sense of stress.
Now, before we carry on, let's take a little detour. I use the word 'stress' with some caution. As a word it has been appropriated into common usage, losing some of its impact. How often do you hear someone described as 'stressing out' when they are annoyed about something, or classed as a 'stress head' if they dare to grumble?
And of course stress in and of itself is not a negative. We all need a certain level of stress to give us the impetus to complete tasks. Therapy taught me a useful analogy which I often repeat. Stress is like an elastic band; pull on it in short bursts and it will return to its previous state but pull on it excessively for too long and it will inevitably snap. This is the point at which everyday, manageable stress becomes an unmanageable beast, paving the path to anxiety.
Against this background then, I feel incredibly stressed.
It is tempting to blame work and there are certainly some specific triggers there. Recently I have been involved in a particular task that presses all my negativity buttons, causing me to doubt myself, compare unfavourably with others and take any and every slight or criticism personally.
It is tempting to blame home too. Raising twins and a toddler, all under 6 years old, is inherently hard work. Therapy taught me that it is okay to get frustrated and that everyone experiences the doubts and insecurities that I do. For all that, I constantly find myself on edge, the most reasonable of enquiries from one of the kids sending me over the anxiety precipice. I have an almost perpetual sense that I don't have time for all the things I need to do, that every request is a burden that I cannot carry. I want to tidy, fix and improve but I either don't know how or don't have the will to start. I feel like an inadequate parent who will look back with regret in years to come at the years I wasted.
There is no respite, I move from one stress to another. But then I take antidepressants to combat these anxieties, are they not offering some support? Yes and no. Despite all the above, my general mood has been better. I feel more balanced and in control. At the same time, my anxieties remain unchecked and escalating. Perhaps worst of all though, my extreme tiredness seems to have coincided with starting on these tablets. I moved from Citalopram to Sertraline but the symptoms persist with each. In the New Year I will be starting on Fluoxetine, which was actually the very first antidepressant I tried back in 2008.
The trouble with mental illnesses is that by very definition, they are in the mind and therefore something others cannot see. Given that our society remains one that is generally sceptical or ignorant of these conditions, it can be difficult to convey to non-sufferers just what is occurring. Tell someone you are tired and the other person will likely share their own tale of sleeping woe, confident that all you need is an early night or a lie in.
But whilst the illness may be mental, the manifestation is physical. This tiredness is not something that can be cured with a good night's sleep. No matter how long or restful the sleep, sufferers commonly find themselves waking feeling utterly exhausted. This carries forward into the day so that apart from copious amounts of yawning, there is a tiredness of the mind. Every thought or decision is a laborious process of forcing the brain to function. Physically meanwhile it feels an almighty effort to drag your limbs around. Coupled with this I continue to suffer debilitating head and neck pain. I routinely pop ibuprofen whilst paracetamol has seemingly given way to co-codamol, the former barely registering. They provide short term relief but make me foggy and lethargic. Like all the other symptoms, I have become so used to them that I accept them as a part of normal life and have learned to function around them whilst at the same time judging myself negatively for failing to reach the standards I have set for myself. Sometimes I wish I could put my head on someone else's body and let them experience the pain, discomfort and repeating waves of negative thinking I wade against each day, then perhaps they would understand.
Since January I lost just over a stone in weight, around 15lbs. Since the end of the summer, and since settling in to my medication, I have put it all back on. My diet has deteriorated and the exercise regime I had gladly implemented and embraced now seems like a distant memory. I revisited the exercises recently but had to give up part way through. I felt physically weak and incapable of completing them. I wondered how I ever managed it in the first place. And again there comes with it a judgement as I brand myself fat and a failure.
Come the New Year, I hope for an improvement on the new medication, a return of some energy and alertness. To what extent are my current issues are attributable to the medication versus simply being a manifestation of the symptoms of depression and anxiety? I don't know. Either way, tablets are not a panacea, there remain underlying issues of negative thinking and behaviour that I must address.
The journey continues.