What does your life look like?

I spend a good proportion of my working days designing infographics. They’re a great story-telling aid, because they can communicate a truckload of information in a highly digestible format. I’ve had some success with them too, professionally. 

I had never thought to apply my infographic skills to myself though, until the psychiatrist suggested it. So I’ve spent the past couple of weekends putting together a summary picture of my life. 

For a change, I have the data to hand and frankly, it doesn’t matter if it’s right anyway because the purpose is to communicate my perception of history rather than history. 

It’s proving an engaging exercise. There’s not much of particular interest in the straightforward timeline of events, but it’s recalling all the other things I was doing when I was living or working or studying somewhere that has been a salutary reminder of my erstwhile range of interests and activities. Realising that they’re all in the past and questioning why is largely the point of the exercise I expect. (I’ve been tempted to title the graphic “My Formerly Interesting Life” except psychs take that kind of thing literally and you spend the whole session talking about how you feel about that.)

There are a lot of activities I’ve enjoyed in the past that I have no wish to do again: rock climbing, soccer, hockey, pottery class. There are some (skiing, for one) that would be difficult to take up again, given I don’t live close to the mountains any more and I’ve acquired a tricky knee injury in the intervening years. But there are a lot of other activities on the list that I’d still like to do but don’t. And I’ve stopped doing them mainly because I’ve stopped making the effort. 

That would seem like a fairly easy thing to fix: just start making the effort. 

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Turns out I’m depressed. Now what?

I was referred by our welfare officer to a psychiatrist and she fairly quickly assessed depression as the culprit in my enduring and debilitating fatigue. Although she didn’t say it (I did), I’ve been using the rheumatoid arthritis as an excuse and failing to acknowledge the other things causing me grief. Literally. 

We talked about the death of my sister, although we were unable to come up with a term for grief you don’t feel entitled to be feeling because you didn’t like the person who died. [I’m sure there is a language somewhere in the world that has a word for this.] Then there’s the anger about what that relationship took from me, in all sorts of ways. There’s a lot I’m reluctant to lift the lid on there. 

Curiously, recognising this as depression is a relief. It’s not RA that’s ruining my life after all! Depression I know about: I’ve had it before, lived with it, come out the other side. I pretty much know what I have to do from here. It’s tough, don’t get me wrong. It’s not an easy thing to get control of and it’s a long hard road back to health. But it’s not the same fear of the unknown that RA is. With depression, even with its mind-numbing hopelessness and insistence on the futility of everything, there’s a part of my brain that knows it’s lying about all that and that things can, and do, get better. 

With RA, I’ve got no idea what comes next. As anyone with it will tell you, past activity is no predictor and it’s infuriatingly random. That in itself can be really trying because it seems like nothing you do makes any sensible difference. 

At least with depression I know what works:

  1. Eat properly. Fruit and veg, 5-9 servings a day. Minimal refined carbs, no alcohol, restrict caffeine
  2. Exercise. Get out every day. Walk, run, whatever, just move. 
  3. Do things I enjoy. At least one thing every day. 

I know from past experience to start doing these in order beginning with eating because that more than anything affects my brain. I’ve been doing okay on food, so I don’t need to cut out bad things  (alcohol, sugar, caffeine) so much as add in the good (veg & fruit, and lots of it). 

Once I’ve got good food in me, exercise becomes a more thinkable and doable proposition. While I’m keen to get back to running I need to be very careful about easing back in with walking first because the last thing I need is a setback from injury. 

The one I find hardest is 3, finding things that give me joy because of course one of the hallmarks of depression is the absence of joy. So starting very, very small is my plan – like using the ‘fancy’ shower gel instead of saving it for best, (whatever the hell “best” means in the context of shower gels.)

So we’ll see how I go. There are times when I think living alone poses particular challenges and this is one of those times. Because it’s all down to me. There’s no one there to force me to eat my veg or make me go for a walk. 

The only person who is going to make this happen is me. And I can’t be relied on because I’m depressed and can’t be bothered. 

Drifting dangerously close to breaking point

I QUIT
Not really. I just feel like it sometimes.

Because some people in our organisation deal routinely with unpleasant and distressing material and events, we have good support systems in place for staff.

I have been grateful for them recently.

I realised I am approaching breaking point. Some of the behaviours that signal trouble for me include:

  • mindless surfing and playing on my phone until late at night when I should be sleeping
  • not bothering to prepare food, especially skipping breakfast
  • eating lunch very late or not at all
  • getting no exercise
  • being tempted by the idea of being hit by a bus so I can have a nice long rest in hospital
  • dreading waking up, and waking later and later

All of these have been happening. What’s not clear is what is driving the stress. My job has its frustrations, to be sure, but on its own is not so stressful it would be causing this kind of behaviour.

The fatigue of rheumatoid arthritis is a major factor. I feel so exhausted most of the time that attending to even the basics of living  (showering, dressing, getting to work) are taxing my energy. By the time I have dealt with work and its inevitable pressures, it’s not surprising I am showing the strain.

So I took myself off to the Welfare Officer to see what can be done. She’s referred me on, so I’m booked in to see someone next week to discuss what my options are. I’d like to reduce my hours, but I know my boss is oddly reluctant to consider this (I say ‘oddly’ as she has been extremely supportive and understanding of my need for rest). Working from home would be one option but for boringly tedious corporate reasons, that is difficult to organise at the moment (you’d think you could just go buy a laptop and make it happen, but no.)

I don’t want to quit my job, as I enjoy it most of the time, and I’m very uncertain about what would happen if I stopped work (financially, mentally, socially). I’d like to find a happy solution. The challenge is that solutions take work, and work takes energy, and I have so little energy left after brushing my teeth that it seems like an impossible task. And yet, it could make all the difference.

It’s like the poverty trap: if you could just save a bit to get ahead of the bills you could change the whole dynamic, but you don’t have enough to get ahead. So the situation gets worse and worse. I do need to intervene to break this cycle before it breaks me.

A glut of social activity undoes me

I have had three invitations in the past month: to a movie, to dinner, and to a wedding. For someone who rarely goes out, this represents a glut of activity.

I  was completely freaked out by the movie invitation. In the end, I didn’t go, partly because the movie time was well past my bed time on a school night (or any night for that matter) and mostly because the intention of the invitee was ambiguous enough to make me nervous and I really didn’t want to have an awkward clarifying conversation to the effect that I wasn’t interested ‘that’ way.

The dinner invitation was less fraught as it was with a couple. My reservation about being invited out for dinner is that I cannot do late nights, and I feel so uninteresting as a result of not going anywhere other than work that I doubt my ability to hold up my end of the conversation. As it turned out, this invitation has had to be rescheduled several times so may end up being a weekend coffee instead if we’re ever going to see one another.

The wedding invitation is anxiety-inducing. I was very  flattered to be asked, and I have no doubt it will be a lovely event. It’s still a few months away so I have time to prepare. My anxiety is of the ‘will I know anyone there’ and ‘what will I wear’ variety. Both are manageable. I will need to shop for a suitable dress and shoes and I have plenty of time to do that. As for making conversation, the beauty of weddings is that there is one opening line that never gets old or seems forced: “How do you know the couple?” I’m sure I’ll cope.

Most people would attend this many activities in a week and still have room and energy for more. It’s a bit sobering to realise how shrunken my sense of a social life has become when invitations to three events in a month constitutes a glut. Especially when two of them didn’t materialise and the third one is still months away.