‘I felt a funeral in my brain’ – the opening to Andrew Solomon’s seminal TED talk and the most powerful description of depression I’ve encountered. Major depressive disorder, clinical depression, endogenous depression and anhedonia are a selection of descriptors which pepper my medical records, all of which fall woefully short of evoking its lived experience. Whilst I appreciate that labelling can be a gateway to support, I am uneasy with the increasing medicalisation of distress. I prefer the trauma focused perspective encouraged by Eleanor Longden, who exhorts that the most important question in psychiatry should not be ‘what’s wrong with you but what happened to you’.
Andrew’s story of a series of losses, leading to a depression from which he believed there was no recovery, resonates strongly with me. Whenever people share what is real for them, my heart catapults and yet I wrestle with the desire to be authentic and a fear of the consequences. In conversation with Dan Harris, Brene Brown refers to ‘near enemies’ as things that masquerade as virtue but unravel connection. Revealing parts of yourself leaves you open to external feedback and the risk of being met with pity, the near enemy of compassion, so pithily encapsulated in her words ‘I feel sorry for you from over here where that shit does not happen’.
And yet, I’m convinced of the power of the personal and feel compelled to be the change I want to see. The more I’ve shared, the less alone I’ve felt and the more conscious I’ve become of the divisive power of language. I prefer to talk about emotional, rather than mental health as emotions are something we all experience – not just the mad people over there – and trauma doesn’t always come with a capital T. Pain is an inevitable feature of human existence, no matter how privileged your position and grief the price we pay for loving.
Carolyn Spring is a trainer who specialises in trauma, and I found her online training for working with shame illuminating. Understanding how I need to change my state before working on my story was revelatory and her explanation of the trauma traffic light motivates me to continue engaging in activities which bring me into the green zone.
This year’s Learning at Work Week theme is ‘create the future’, which can feel like an ambitious task when grappling with the enormity of getting out of bed. But thinking about it, creativity has always played a key role in helping me navigate my emotional landscape. In childhood, I remember eagerly anticipating the next episode of Why Don’t You …? and benefiting from a cessation of looping thoughts, when I put my hands to work.
Years ago, a friend introduced me to the concept of ‘looking after future me’ which has become a hook to extricate myself from a dog day standstill. Making things is one way of tending to future me when the present moment feels unmanageable and changing my state when I’m not quite ready to change my story. ‘Expect poison from the standing water’ is one of my favourite quotes and reminds me of the importance of movement when I’m overwhelmed by big feelings. Even the smallest creative act can be a move towards depression’s opposite, which as Andrew Solomon so beautifully asserts, isn’t happiness but vitality.
why don’t you …?
make a zine
In 2 minutes, Austin Kleon demonstrates how to make a zine from a single piece of paper. This Winter I made a self-care zine which I keep on my fridge, as a visual reminder of what brings me back into the green zone.
knit a scarf
Ravelry is a free website for knitters, crocheters and fibre artists. This simple beginners scarf is free and was one of the first things I made as a novice knitter.
crochet a rainbow
The spice of life blanket is another free pattern on Ravelry. Long before my blanket making days, I downloaded the pattern, just for the amazing visual step by step instructions for each crochet stitch. And recently, when vitality has been lacking, I’ve benefited from adding some colour into my life, one row at a time.
play the ukelele
I’ve always wanted to play an instrument in a group but never felt confident or skilled enough. This Winter, I joined Sheffield Ukelele Club with a ukelele and no skills and after just one class could strum my way through a tune. A few months later I’m serenading my disinterested cat, with the ultimate Miley Cyrus breakup anthem. There are ukelele groups a plenty and a plethora of on-line tutors providing free lessons. This 30 Day Uke Challenge is very accessible.
sew your style
Back in 2014, frustrated with high street fashion, I determined to learn how to sew and make my own clothes. I started writing this blog to document the process but, in all honesty, I wrote more about my feelings than the actual process of dressmaking. I’m not going to lie; progress was initially slow but improved significantly after attending classes at a local community college.
Madeleine was one of the first garments I made, and wrote about which felt reflective of my own style. Sewing clothes requires effort I haven’t been able to muster for a long while but lately I’ve been making small movements in that direction and with each step, I feel a little more vital.