Post Election Blues – the Revolution Will Not be Retweeted

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Almost a month ago now here in fair Blighty queues were formed, poll papers shuffled and boxes dutifully crossed. The general election 2015 ran its course and the Conservative party came to power once again. The people had spoken.

Well, some of them anyway.

Sixty-six per cent of the voting-aged UK general public cast votes on May 7 – and only 36.9 per cent of these people voted for the Tories, thus making their majority win slimmer than Posh Spice on Atkins. Ukip, the Green Party, and the Liberal Democrats all won 12 per cent, 8 per cent and 4 per cent of votes respectively – but none ended up with much more than 1 per cent of the seats. The Conservatives still managed to claim over half of the seats, and sole occupancy of Downing Street.

It was electile dysfunction at it’s finest.

Unsurprisingly, the left-wing masses are unsettled – the UK has seen widespread protest against the Conservative win, and a renewed cry to change the voting system and bring in proportional representation. Many are numb with shock and fear in the face of five more years of public service cuts.

I have to wonder, though, if the deluge of negativity and pessimism from lefties nationwide these last few weeks has been particularly helpful?

Suddenly my Facebook feed is crammed with political experts. The plethora of opinions on why the Tories are wrong/evil/misguided is vast and extraordinarily detailed. My friends have put a lot of time into their diatribes against the state – and, frankly, the constant stream of negativity and complaining is starting to get on my nerves. I’m worried too – the prospect of leaving the EU, losing the Human Rights Act and an even bigger gulf in the rich-poor divide saddens and terrifies me. But I’m painfully aware that whinging about it isn’t going to make a shred of difference. The cuts are coming.

I love an angry blog and a protest march as much as the next person, but we need to ask ourselves – is it really enough? (* types away at blog and tries to ignore glaring irony *) Some of the shoutiest of my friends and family are, absurdly, the ones who seem to be the least involved in any kind of social outreach, community engagement or charitable pursuit. What use is armchair activism if it isn’t followed up with, you know, activity? Social media is a fantastic mechanism for sparking debate and sharing opinions but at some point you have to actually leave the house, and take action outside of cyberspace.

So let’s see this month’s election results as a call to arms, not license to whine. Charities and social enterprises plug the holes that public services don’t have the resources to fill – and we need to be out there helping them through volunteering, fundraising and campaigning, instead of sitting behind our computer screens reposting articles about how the Tories boil cats for fun.

Engaging with the outside world through volunteering is actually proven to help alleviate depression and stress – so how about offsetting those post election blues with a few hours work at your local children’s centre?

I won’t pretend the future doesn’t look bleak for the disadvantaged and vulnerable of Britain. Throughout my struggles with chronic illness and depression I’ve always had the most incredible back up from my wonderful network of family and close friends. I doubt I would have made it even half this far without their support. So when I think about the many mentally ill or physically impaired human beings that I share this little island with, who don’t necessarily benefit from a close-knit community of loved ones, I’m at a loss as to how they’re going to get the help they need as government welfare makes a hasty retreat.

So instead of instagramming pictures of Boris Johnson’s face photoshopped onto a llama, let’s try to salvage something positive from the rubble that is British politics today – and do what we can to make the little spaces we occupy in the world better, fairer and more inclusive for everyone around us. David Cameron’s so-called Big Society has to start somewhere – let’s make it our own doorsteps.

The Sound of Silence

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“I don’t really listen to music. I listen to life,” mused the high-powered CEO while I desperately scanned the room for a make-shift sick-bucket. It was somewhere around 2009 and I was note-taking while my Editor interviewed a woman about as exciting as a banana. Who in their right mind chooses ‘reality’ to soundtrack their life when they could have Dylan, Waites or Springsteen?

Six years later and the idea of rejecting the radio for a moment of quiet doesn’t seem quite so vomit inducing, as I sit eating my lunch in silence, with only the occasional birdsong for company.

Lately I’ve come to the realisation that a lot of my ingrained habits, like being permanently plugged into an ipod while out walking, or aimlessly trawling through someone’s holiday snaps on Facebook, are simply that – habits. I don’t necessarily enjoy the moments I invest in them, I just use them as ways to avoid the stillness and quiet of the present moment. Silence and inactivity make me uncomfortable.

And because the last few years  have taught me not to shy away from the things that frighten me, but to turn in towards them, to confront them, I’ve been spending some time detaching from all my various pieces of technology and trying to pay more attention to the here and now – indulging in the stillness and silence rather than trying to block it out.

Except, as it turns out, when you tune out from all our modern distractions and stimulants – TV, radio, Youtube, Twitter – silence isn’t actually particularly silent at all. The world around us is abuzz with all kinds of natural melodies. The splash of a duck vaulting into the river, leaves rustling in a gentle breeze, a rickety van rumbling unsteadily down the street. Even the rhythmic strains of my own breath punctuating the quiet are actually quite pleasant to listen to when I’m paying attention to the world around me.

Being still and quiet isn’t nearly as boring as I once assumed – in fact it seems to be bringing a tangible element of calm contentedness to my life, and an appreciation for the simple things. My tendency towards boredom is evaporating.

Health coach Shayna Hiller reckons that integrating periods of stillness into your daily routine can make you happier, more relaxed, more attentive to detail, more energetic, healthier and it can even improve your immune and digestive system. I don’t plan on upping sticks and moving to a cave in the Himalayas, but if I can reap all these benefits from the simple act of unplugging from life’s distractions every now and then, I’m all for it.

And perhaps one day it might be my turn to be stared at with disdain by someone young and naive, as I praise the virtues of turning off the radio/TV/smart phone and ‘listening to life’.

Lads and lexapro – men get depressed too

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Recently I was out on a hen do, when after a few cocktails and loosened tongues, talk turned to mental illness – and it transpired that half the women I was with were taking antidepressants. Literally 50 per cent of the group. Even someone with maths skills as questionable as mine can figure out that’s an astonishingly large chunk of the room.

I’ve never had any problems talking to other women about my past anxiety and depression issues – in fact very often starting this conversation has led to some knowing nods, the sharing of similar experiences, and maybe even a few tears and a cuddle. It’s comforting, cathartic and a really important part of the healing process.

My male friends, however, have been a lot less open about their mental health difficulties. Which is the gentle way of saying I’ve had to prise ‘feelings chat’ out of them like a gummy bear from a greedy toddler’s sticky fingers. And if it hasn’t been obvious that a male friend might be going through depression or anxiety I’ve often only learned about it after the worst has passed, or through a flurry of emails or text messages. Talking face-to-face about emotional stuff has never been a strong suit for the dudes in my life.

I could burn a hole in my keyboard ranting about all the different corners of life and modern society in which men have unfair advantages and privilege – but mental health isn’t one of them. We are failing men that fall into the mental illness abyss. Overall there are fewer men than women who suffer from anxiety disorders and clinical depression, but those that do are at much higher risk of killing themselves – the male rate of suicide in the UK has increased significantly since 2007 and in 2013 78% of all UK suicides were in men.

It’s a bizarre gender paradox – with women experiencing higher rates of suicide ideation, and actually attempting suicide more than men; and yet we end up with men being those most likely to successfully take their own lives. What happens in-between the onset of male depression and these tragic deaths? Not enough talking, for sure.

It’s widely accepted that a higher proportion of women will go through clinical depression in their lifetime, than men. Hormones, people. Balancing child-birth and motherhood with trying to have a career. THE PATRIARCHY. The amount of crap we have to put up with in modern society means it’s hardly surprising that so many women turn to happy pills – and this acceptance of our vulnerability makes it easier to talk about things like depression. It’s easier to ask for help.

Not so for men, who are still generally expected to lock up their emotions and get on with it. Sensitivity in men is still construed as weakness. Even I’ve been guilty of jokingly telling a friend to ‘man up’ before, such is the ingrained nature of our societal disdain for male emotional expression and loss of control – qualities we associate with women. Most guys don’t openly talk about their feelings with each other, in the same way that females do, and depression and dark thoughts can fester until they reach crisis point.

However the stereotype that men don’t want to ask for help can’t be very accurate – you just have to look at the number of calls fielded by helplines for men, set up by organisations like Campaign Against Living Miserably – a charity dedicated to preventing male suicide in the UK. It’s painfully obvious that, given the right environment, dudes want to talk.

Suicide is now the biggest killer of men under 50 here in the UK. Even while truck-loads of artery-clogging bacon sandwiches are scoffed every day, and mind-bogglingly dangerous drivers freely roam the roads, this is what’s killing our men. It’s staggering.

We need to get more comfortable with men exploring their emotional needs and better managing their own mental health, especially in the face of continued mental health cuts across the NHS. If we can get more men to talk more about how they feel; go public with their issues and share their experiences of anxiety and depression, not only would this be a direct challenge to the stigma that hounds male mental illness but it might just help to save the lives of other men that are suffering in silence.

Depression, flight 9525 and the media – stigma sticks

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“Killer pilot suffered from depression.”

“Depressed German deliberately flew into mountain.”

“Suicide pilot had a long history of depression – why on earth was he allowed to fly?”

By now you’d have to have been trapped deep in the wilderness in a cave guarded by angry honey badgers not to know that Andreas Lubitz – the Germanwings pilot responsible for last week’s tragic plane crash – had previously suffered from a mental illness. These tabloid headlines build a very simple equation for the public masses clamouring to know how anyone could carry out such a monstrous act – depression equals danger.

This isn’t just irresponsible and insensitive reporting – it’s dangerous. Years of toil against mental illness stigma, dissolving through the scribble of a pen.

So far all we know about Lubitz is that the police found torn up sick notes in his flat and that he was unwell in 2009 with something that may or may not have been depression. What has this meant to the papers? That 150 plane passengers were murdered by a mental illness.

One in five people will endure clinical depression at some point in their lives. That’s around 350 million depressives worldwide. One of them has crashed a plane which is, obviously, horrific. That doesn’t mean everyone else suffering from the illness is a potentially murderous risk to the safety of the public at large – we mustn’t confuse a terrible, debilitating mental health condition with motive to do harm.

I can’t, and I won’t, speculate on why this man took down a plane full of innocent human beings. The truth is we’ll probably never know what was behind his actions. Did something slip through the net during his health check-up? Don’t know. Was he actually supposed to be signed off work sick? No idea. Was he harbouring secret mass murder plots hatched between himself and his pet hedgehog, Wolfgang? Who can say. What I do know, however, is that massive headlines equating past experience of mental illness with colossal risk is misleading and dangerous. In the case of depression, stigma literally costs lives.

I hated listening to the news when I was clinically depressed a few years ago. I don’t particularly enjoy the relentless barrage of negativity now, but when I was poorly the radio bulletins literally felt like a physical assault on my ears. I’d hear tales of misery from war-torn countries and wonder what the point of living in such a terrible world was. I’d see the story about the mentally ill mother who killed herself and her two children and feel the white-hot creep of terror that my illness might turn me into someone like that. If something like this had hit the headlines while I was in the throes of self-esteem-eroding, guilt-soaked and paranoia-laden mental illness I know I would have really struggled.

People with depression can already feel (totally illogically) that they’re bad people, a danger to society or just generally incapable of carrying out the simplest of tasks without cocking it up. When they see these darkest fears confirmed in bold newspaper print, instead of laughing it off as bad journalism they may well believe it and just sink further into self doubt.

I have many friends and family members that have lived through depression and still manage to be responsible human beings generally kicking arse at life. They’re doctors, teachers, support workers, entrepreneurs and CEOs. I work in a children’s centre. We’re all fantastic at our jobs.

I don’t know what the protocol for pilots that are in the middle of mental health treatment is – of course the assessment for those in charge of safely transporting us across the skies should be rigorous and examined on a case-by-case basis. Should anyone that’s currently suffering from severe depression with brain fog, poor concentration, exhaustion, back pain and all it’s other varied symptoms be flying a plane? Of course not. Clinical depression is a physical illness too – I could barely safely drive a car when I was at my worst, let alone a plane. But there’s a vast difference between responsible reporting about a man who was suffering from an ‘unspecified illness’ who perhaps should have been signed off sick, to making a broad and generalised link between someone having ‘a history of depression’ and the idea that they shouldn’t have been in employment.

People make full recoveries from depression all the time. It’s actually likely that they go on to become healthier, more useful individuals than those never bitten by the black dog – facing the future with a new perspective and better ways to manage stress. I never really paid much attention to my health before I became depressed – now I’m uncompromising about looking after myself, and this has a positive ripple effect across my life, relationships and capability in the workplace.

Linking experience of depression with risk and danger isn’t just irresponsible, it doesn’t make any sense. Someone in full remission from cancer wouldn’t be expected to taper their career and general life expectations – depression is no different. The last twenty years or so have seen a surge in public acceptance of depression as what it is – a horrible and indiscriminate illness that can affect anyone, anywhere, that you can completely recover from – but judging by this last week’s press, we still have a long way to go.

Christmas marketing and the hysteria illusion

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“Why do they call it ‘Christmas time’, when ‘time’ is the one thing you don’t have at Christmas?” sighs the Curry’s voice-over man on the radio. Before we have a chance to ponder whether this is true, he’s moved on to their cut-price deals with the enthusiasm of a caffeinated grotto elf.

It’s December, and if mass media is to be believed there’s an unspeakable force of evil in town – jolly ol’ Saint Nick.

We all know that things can get a little stressful at this time of year, what with all the panic sock purchases, the inexplicable need to photocopy your bum at the office party and limited time to eat your body mass in mince pies. The last thing we need is a constant reminder of just how tense we should be feeling. Except, unfortunately, the big brands have long since figured out a way to make cut prices and next-day-delivery all the more appealing in their festive advertising campaigns – by pretending Christmas is the worst thing to happen since the Holocaust.

‘Oh isn’t Christmas horrible,’ we chortle, as our chapped, bleeding hands get to work on wrapping present number 73,’ but thank goodness all these random brands are here to whip up some festive hysteria and get us to spend loads of money on things we didn’t know we needed!’

I recall Morrisons doing a particularly spectacular job of aligning Christmas Day with Dante’s seventh circle of hell a couple of years ago. ‘Here it begins. It’s everywhere. There’s so much to do…’ whispered a possibly clinically depressed Mum, who morosely trudges through her Christmas ‘to do’ list with all the festive enthusiasm of a dead kipper. She battles the shops, practically has a nervous breakdown while peeling the spuds and eventually proclaims: ‘It’s hard work, but it’s Christmas and I wouldn’t have it any other way.’ Did we believe her? Was it not actually Morrisons that ‘wouldn’t have it any other way’ otherwise who would be bulk buying their cranberry sauce on Christmas Eve?

If you’re battling mental illness the holiday season can be tricky enough to deal with, without the big corporates trying to make you feel even more overwhelmed. So I try not to let myself within a cubic centimetre of the TV at this time of year, even if the John Lewis ad really does embody the ‘magic of Christmas’ and will make you cry snowflakes.

If you weren’t already feeling a little strained, fear not – crimbo advertising will have you hyperventilating into a paper bag before the year is out. Next are touting their next-day-delivery as the eighth wonder of the world, Ocado promises to ‘take the stress out of Christmas’ and Aldi warns you to stock-pile novelty napkins at once with their creepy ‘once they’re gone they’re gone’ mantra. Forget Yuletide joy – if the marketing Gods are to be believed it’s all about burned out shoppers beating each other out of the way with Advocaat bottles before flinging themselves off Rochester Bridge in despair. Tis the season, indeed.

Is Christmas really so terrible? Of course not, we’re being duped. It’s not about buying everything in sight until your home resembles an Ikea catalogue page. It’s about quality time with loved ones, going to stare at the twinkling, luminous Oxford Street lights, making mulled wine at home, badly, hanging up tacky, fluorescent paper chains and mopping up the dog’s puke when you forget to hang the Christmas tree chocolates above snout height.

This Christmas, instead of battling fellow shoppers for the last cut-price pigs in blankets, I’ll be tuning out the avalanche of bile taking over the TV and radio waves and actually enjoying myself. Spending time with people I care about, exchanging sloppily wrapped gifts and not having a hernia because someone forgot to buy the Pringles. It may not be as ‘perfect’ as the Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference advert, but I’ll bet it will be traditional.

My anxiety disorder makes me look like a shoe bomber

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Cognitive behavioural therapy is making me look like a complete fruit loop, not to mention costing me a bloody fortune. The sessions themselves are totally gratis thanks to Auntie NHS – but it’s the ‘homework’ I have to carry out in-between sessions to challenge my anxious thoughts and behaviours that’s burning a hole in my wallet and causing me to behave like an amnesiac nomad.

A few weeks ago I paid six pounds to travel to Reading by train, only to cross over to the other side of the platform and ride back home. The next day I travelled to Reading again, had a cup of tea (£1.90) in the station cafe before again heading straight home (another £6). To the untrained eye I must have looked like a) a lost goat  b) a terrorist or c) someone who just really, really likes train journeys.

I’ve paid £2.20 to go and sit on a tube platform at Paddington Underground station and simply watch Bakerloo line train carriages rumble past, before heading back above ground without making any journey whatsoever. To the confused security staff watching me on CCTV – I’M SORRY.

Why does any (sort of) sane person do these things?

I’ll tell you. Part of cognitive behavioural therapy involves plotting graded activity hierarchies around an area that causes you considerable anxiety, and gradually exposing yourself to these anxiety-inducing situations until your frazzled nervous system realises they’re not so terrifying after all.

It’s the psychology world’s answer to ‘learning by doing’ and the wonderful thing about graded hierarchies is that they allow you to take things at the pace of a disabled snail. Thanks to previous bad experiences when I was severely depressed, and having been unwell for a long time, I’m pant-wettingly afraid of navigating public transport solo – but in order to conquer this fear there’s no need to immediately fling yourself onto a train to Aberdeen. The first step of my graded hierarchy was to ride my local bus just three stops on my own, and the last step was to travel into London on the train and get on the underground by myself. There were many, many steps in-between and I never moved onto the next level until I felt truly ready.

Don’t get me wrong, forcing yourself to do something that frightens you over and over again is horrible and exhausting, but it works. After having many panic attacks on public transport in the past, my body had learned that being out and about by myself in crowds was a Bad Thing. The inevitable racing heart, sweating, shaking and dry mouth that appeared every single time I tried something new and mildly exciting would not dissipate no matter how many times I told myself that simply catching a seven-minute local train was nothing to get jelly-legs over. I learned that by staying with my anxiety and discomfort on these journeys until it shrank to a more manageable level, I could reprogramme my frightened brain. Forcing myself back into those situations and re-writing my experience of them compelled my nerves to admit defeat and accept it was safe for me to get back on tubes, trains and buses by myself again.

Anyone that’s going through CBT exposure therapy will know that the slow and necessary steps you must take to rebuild confidence and get back out in society following mental illness are some of the hardest, most gruelling strides you can ever make. And it often feels like an utterly thankless task. When a friend asks you what you did today and you proudly reply: ‘I went to Sainsbury’s, forced myself to stay in there for five minutes, stared at some kiwis and went home, weeping,’ you will be all too aware just how far depression or anxiety made you fall.

But you will be proud, and each minor victory will spur you on to your next challenge, and you’ll know that one day things will be back to normal. But you’ll never take being able to catch the bus alone for granted again, and before jumping to suspicious conclusions about that lone stranger loitering for far too long on the train station platform, you’ll wonder if, maybe, instead of planning a devastating terrorist attack, they’re just working through an anxiety disorder.

 

Getting back on the underground horse

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I spied her lurking in the newspaper-littered corner of Paddington Station; sneering, shining, defiant. Beckoning me to her shadowy depths. I paused, taking a moment to look up from my steaming tea mug and catch the full brunt of her steely glare. “So…” I mused. “We meet again.”

My nemesis? The London Underground. All I needed was a leather swivel chair and a cat to stroke malevolently – then my London transport face-off would have been Bond-worthy.

You see it’s been more than a year and a half since I set foot in the London underground system – and I have something of a chequered past with these subterranean trains. I’ve endured multiple panic attacks in-between Oxford Circus and Baker Street. The central line is my own personal synonym for ‘hyperventilation’. Descending the steps at Mile End Station literally feels like my lungs are slowly filling with water.

In short? I’m not a fan of the tube.

Over the last five years, every time a bout of depression/anxiety crept into my life the first thing to feel it’s toxic by-products was my ability to make underground journeys across London. Being trapped beneath the city’s streets in overcrowded, pungent and creaking carriages that rattle through darkened tunnels at break-neck speed can be a bit stressful for those in good health. To someone suffering mental health difficulties, it becomes unbearable. The tube is actually a very successful barometer of where I’m at in my battle with the black dog – if I can manage a 40-minute stint in the bowels of the underground then you can bet I’m pretty in control of my adrenaline levels.

I don’t intend on moving back to London. Sure I want to visit every now and then, but I can always get a friend to accompany me underground, or just take the bus instead. So why such a burning desire to conquer my nemesis? They say suffering makes you more resilient and determined; I think that’s just psychologist talk for ‘pain in the arse’. I’m far too stubborn to let my fear of the tube defeat me, even though I could probably find ways to avoid going underground in the future. Depression robs people of so many things, not to mention entire chunks of their life, but I’ll be damned if it alters the way that I choose to travel across my nation’s capital city. I’ll be getting back on the horse, even though my horse resembles a rickety underground train.

Today I had no intention of actually making a tube journey. I was just checking in and saying hello to an old friend. Contemplating the idea of someday soon perhaps taking a very short jaunt along the Circle line. But the fact that I feel ready to even start thinking about getting back on the, er, horse marks a pretty significant stage of my recovery. And for now, that’s enough for even someone as stubborn as me.

Should we talk about suicide as ‘freedom’?

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Yep, that’s right, I used the S word. I want to talk about that most scandalous of taboos, the one only discussed in hushed voices in darkened corners in the wake of tragedy – that of taking one’s own life. Wilfully and deliberately choosing to take an early exit from earthly existence in favour of whatever might be waiting after the human body expires, as beloved actor Robin Williams so sadly did on Sunday.

As fans began to mourn the loss of one of the comedy world’s brightest lights, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tweeted a well-known image of Disney’s Aladdin wrapped in an embrace with Williams’ hilariously voiced Genie, alongside a simple message: ‘Genie, you’re free.’

The emotional farewell hug, the starry-sky backdrop, the sense of hope and liberation – it seemed a poignant and fitting tribute, on the surface at least. But the viral tweet – while well intentioned, shared by over 300,000 people and viewed by countless others – has suicide prevention experts worried, and rightly so. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has warned that the image violates well-established public health standards for how we talk about suicide. They’re concerned that romanticising Williams’ death risks contagion of vulnerable children and adults – meaning the phenomenon of ‘copy-cat suicide’ where media coverage of one death can end up encouraging others already contemplating suicide to take that final leap.

The written implication that Williams’ death meant freedom from his suffering paints suicide in far too celebratory a light, said Christine Moutier, chief medical officer for the foundation. And let’s face it, anyone that’s dealing with persistent suicidal thoughts, who may already have made plans to terminate their own life, really doesn’t need much of a trigger to put these plans into action. I don’t believe that the Jumanji star’s untimely demise will have people lining up to throw themselves off bridges, but glorifying his release from a turbulent life as ‘freedom’ is certainly unhelpful – especially considering his status as a well loved and highly respected celebrity.

Rather than any intentional insensitivity or ignorance on the part of those that initiated this social media storm, what this highlights more than anything is the thorny, delicate and confusing nature of the public discourse we have when it comes to suicide. For those facing terminal illness, rapid degeneration of mind and body, chronic pain and relentless misery, ending life may actually represent freedom and liberation. I’m pro choice when it comes to suicide and the right to make a dignified exit from a life that, for whatever reason, is sliding into an intolerable abyss. But depression doesn’t have to be a life sentence – even though it seems that way when you’re in the throes of a bad episode – and that’s why we need to be so careful when considering those at their wits end. Suicide may seem like the only viable option when the black dog bites, but many people facing severe depression and thoughts of harming themselves can and will go on to make a full recovery. This is the optimistic and hopeful message we need to be spreading when it comes to mental illness.

We need to focus on the life and works of a fantastically talented and ferociously hard-working creative, whose bright light was extinguished far too soon, rather than romanticising his death as anything other than incredibly sad and tragic. Thanks for the laughter, Robin, and may you rest in peace.

Weeding out anxiety and depression

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My dear old ma and pa went on holiday for three weeks and asked me to take care of their garden with all its hordes of vegetation. My reaction? A grudging yes and visions of hours of tedious watering-can drudgery. My folks’ back yard is a veritable wonderland of flora and fauna, a botanical smorgasbord, which requires a tight watering schedule to avoid plant genocide.

I was to be Cinderella of the cabbage patch and my Mum’s courgettes wouldn’t be mutating into a horse-drawn carriage any time soon.

However, despite seriously cutting into my Netflix time, I’ve really grown to love the hours I’m spending tending the foliage. I don’t have a great track record when it comes to keeping plants alive – I’m more cack-handed than green-fingered – but the gardening stars must have aligned because I’ve had no trouble keeping everything in bloom. I began to notice that the plants weren’t just ‘not dying’, they were positively thriving under my care – and it felt fantastic.

I’ve discovered the joy of filling watering cans with freshly collected rainwater housed in clever little water-butts, drenching luminous window boxes in the sweltering July heat, plucking swollen marrows and leafy kale from the ground and slinging them straight into a pot on the stove. I feel like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (with better shoes) and I love it. There’s something about nurturing a living thing and watching it grow that’s very satisfying and nourishing for the soul; for the first time in a long time my anxiety and depression symptoms feel almost distant.

“It’s great, I’m really enjoying myself, having this relationship with the natural world is just so…therapeutic” I gushed to a friend yesterday. Then I paused. Therapeutic. Why did that word suddenly sound so ridiculous, and why was it making me want to throw up in my own mouth a little bit?

The thing is, nature is just what it says on the tin. Natural. It should be part of our life day in and day out – nobody was born to sit at a computer all day long, under artificial light like a human battery. And yet that’s what so many of us do. The concept of gardening as a ‘mechanism for wellbeing’ annoyed me because it highlighted just how much of a back-seat the great outdoors takes in modern lifestyles. We’re so concerned with what’s happening on our LCD screens that something as simple as watering the plants becomes ‘therapy’ rather than simply part of our day. And I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to choosing the movie channel over tulips, having only been spending more time in the garden under duress these last few weeks.

Before the advent of globalisation and the international import/export industry we wouldn’t have had a choice when it came to communing with nature. Our ancestors either harvested the land for all it’s worth, or lived off nuts and berries. I for one know that the prospect of life without potatoes would have pushed me into the ploughing fields. These days if we want Argentinian blueberries in February we just have to trot on down to Sainsbury’s, without so much as a sideways glance at a grain of soil. Yet we still love to extol the ‘therapeutic’ qualities of getting out and about in mother nature.

Even the smallest amount of exercise can apparently boost our mood – as long as it takes place in an outdoor green space, experts have also claimed that gardening not only helps us to feel better but it can ward off clinical depression.

It’s no wonder I’m feeling so content and relaxed – I only wish I’d paid attention sooner to what’s right under my nose and currently brings me so much peace and joy. My own back garden.

 

‘Bouncing back’ from burnout

Stress vs BurnoutRecently I saw a magazine article entitled ‘Bouncing Back from Burnout’ and I laughed so hard my lunch nearly came out my nose. Why? Because you don’t ‘bounce back’ from a state of exhaustion – you crawl back very slowly, on your hands and knees, pausing only to weep hysterically on the shoulder of a sympathetic friend, family member or passing stoat. In this sorry state you’ve got less ‘bounce’ than Henry VIII attempting the pole vault.

I should know – when I reached the point of no return when it came to my health, I wasn’t just burned out. I was charred to a crisp. I was wired but exhausted, angry, inexplicably driven and hyper, sleepless, and my emaciated reflection resembled Voldemort and Gillian McKeith’s love-child. It took a long time for my body to reach such a critical state. A long period of self abuse through poor diet, high stress levels, inadequate rest and far too much adrenaline – and it’s taking a long time to recover too. I’m learning patience, the importance of balance, how to say no, as well as how to relax properly – and I won’t be walking, skipping or bouncing back to my old, toxic lifestyle. Not ever.

I’m currently chugging about eight vitamin supplements a day, and even this concentration of vital nutrients speeding towards my ailing internal organs won’t make palpable changes to my health for a little while. My nutritionist still thinks it will take at least three months of this regime before I start to see any positive transformations whatsoever. I’m in it for the long haul, whether I like it or not.

The same goes for exercise. Currently I can manage about four lengths of my local pool before the lifeguard starts to look nervous I might drown in less than a metre of chlorinated water. If I can extend this feat to eight lengths before Christmas, I’ll be happy.

The article I read recommended taking a few consecutive days off work to cure this thing we call burnout. ‘You may even need an entire week,’ the writer posited, gravely. Man, if I could heal my wrecked body and mind in just seven days it would be like Christmas, all my birthdays and Chris Hemsworth declaring his undying love for me, all coming together at once in wonderful and wildly unrealistic symmetry.

There are no quick fixes for burnout and exhaustion. Reclaiming my health for the long term is requiring a gentle, focused and sustained approach to change. Subtle changes, but change nonetheless. What I eat, who I spend my time with, how often I relax and what I realistically expect from my life have all seen alterations. It’s a gruelling trudge, not a bungee recoil.

It took me a very long time to really get to grips with the lengthy time-scale I was dealing with for my recovery plan – our society’s ‘now’ culture was just so deeply ingrained in my consciousness. Three months isn’t actually all that long to wait for change, but these days everything we need is but a click of the mouse away – and we want it all faster, bigger, cheaper and closer to our lazy, privileged backsides. My health wasn’t going to come back to me at the speed of an Ocado delivery – expectations had to be seriously adjusted.

Our ancestors dealt with death and danger every day as they battled to survive fierce predators, vicious climates and scarce food supplies. These days our fight or flight response is more likely to be triggered by a quinoa shortage than the appearance of a woolly mammoth and yet somehow, as cases of ‘burnout’ sky-rocket across the globe, we’re managing to wear ourselves out even more than ever through 24/7 emailing and burning ambition. When an immense tiredness comes along that we can’t instantly dispel with caffeine, we’re flabbergasted – and a five-point-guide to ‘bounce back’ within the week is about as useful as a chocolate teapot.

There’s no bouncing back from burnout. These expectations of bouncing, swerving and speeding our way through life at 100 miles an hour are what make us sick in the first place. When your body tells you it needs a break, it’s time to listen – there’s no magic pill or wonder cure that will have us back on our feet tweeting, internet shopping and making business calls within days.

Instead of feeding us unrealistic quick fixes for our fatigue, the media needs to get real and tell us what we don’t want to hear. That recovering from burnout requires large and sustained lifestyle changes or the only bouncing we’ll be doing will be straight into an early grave.