Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. I am struggling again. And also saying things in threes, which is never a good sign.
If I’m honest, I’ve been struggling for months, but I’m not sure how much people who’ve bumped into me would believe me. Somehow I am keeping the basics going – even the big basics like running a workshop on ‘Exploring Simplicity’ this weekend – and in the moment I can seem confident and happy, and perhaps I am.
This is the problem with persistent and low-level depression. While I need to, I find that I can somehow produce a smiley face and keep on going. But the moment I don’t need to do this anymore I feel absolutely rock bottom and sit there with tears running down my face. Like yesterday, when I coped OK with taking dad for his hospital treatment and the whole breadth of things that this entailed – finding he wasn’t fully dressed and hadn’t had breakfast when I arrived to pick him up; spending 25 minutes queuing for a blue badge parking space; seeing a team and consultant we hadn’t met before; having to arrange to pick up antibiotics via the GP because the hospital pharmacy was too far for dad to walk – and then, just because he wanted me to take him for lunch, it all suddenly felt too much and I burst into tears.
Worse, sometimes the stress and distress comes out in the form of me being cantankerous and incredibly irritable. Even perfectly reasonable requests feel like huge mountains and I immediately feel like my back is to the wall. The poor person at the other end – most recently one of my sisters – wonders why on earth a simple ask like putting something in the post appears to be beyond me. When I pause for a second, even I wonder why this seems to be too much for me – but it doesn’t stop it feeling like I’m being asked to climb the north face of Everest.
Recently a kind and supportive person expressed that support by sharing with me the text of Desiderata, written by Max Ehrmann in 1927 and beloved by many ever since. Now don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things I love about Desiderata – I mean, who doesn’t like being called a ‘child of the universe’ and compared to the trees and the stars? However I also have a bone to pick with old Max because he also tells us to ‘Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexations to the spirit.’ I can hear a chorus of voices here, telling me what good advice this is. But if you are one of the people who is, completely unintentionally, sometimes loud and aggressive, then it is the loneliest prose poem in the world.
Many of us who find it hard to control our emotions feel like, and often are, social pariahs. When I am depressed and become overwhelmed by what the world throws at me I can manage so much, but little things often tip the balance and suddenly I am defensive and tearful. I don’t want to be judged on these times alone, but often this is what other people – and my own self-critical inner voice – notice the most. Even when I apologise, or try to explain why I over-reacted to a situation, I am clear in my head that I have failed badly some invisible test of etiquette and what is considered tolerable. It is like those ‘zero tolerance’ campaigns – well-intentioned and aiming to protect others from abuse but ultimately creating a tier of second-class citizens, often with mental health difficulties, who are essentially told that we won’t help you with your problems unless you come to us symptom-free in the first place. I am not condoning aggression, but where, I ask Max, is the Quakerly approach of ‘that of God in everyone’? Of all people having worth and value? None of us are perfect and if we look at the imperfections alone we can lose sight of the essence of a person. This is something that I, too, need to take on board.
I try very hard to control the levels of distress I display to others. I do a form of prayer meditation every day and try to predict what I will be able to manage and to build in periods of space and quiet. I am getting better at listening to the intuitive inner-guide that tells me ‘you can’t deal with this now’. I spend more time outdoors and amongst nature.
Yesterday, after I had taken dad for lunch and picked up his antibiotics, I took myself off to Attenborough Nature Reserve and walked past the lakes, down to the river Trent and along to Beeston Marina. This is my go-to place when I’m down – the canal and the river; somewhere I can see fields and woods and water, and listen to bird-song rather than cars. I am proud that I managed to go there rather than addressing my ‘ought-to’ list and making my stress-levels worse. I sat and watched the world go by. A couple walked along the towpath, comfortable in each other’s company, and linked hands. For an instant I felt the sadness of being alone but then I let it go and moved my attention to a seagull up above. The seagull wheeled in the sky, set against a backdrop of winter sun and misted fields, and for a moment I experienced the freedom and lightness that helps me to go on.
Replacing a dead shrub a month earlier than is sensible – I drove past a garden centre and, guess what, I just had to go in! Now I just have to hope the warmer weather holds.
Dad wanting to go out for lunch immediately after being prodded, poked, widened and lasered at his latest bladder cancer check. Of course this will be no surprise to anyone who knows him well.
© Anne de Gruchy