Mind Control II: Overcoming Alan

“If you have HIV or cancer or athlete’s foot you can’t teach them anything.
When Ashley Stone was dying of meningitis, he might have known that
he was dying, but his meningitis didn’t know. Meningitis doesn’t know
anything. Buy my illness knows everything I know. That is a difficult
thing to get my head around. But the moment I understood it, my
illness understood it too.” – Matt Holmes, from The Shock of the Fall
by Nathan Filer

Since I read Man’s Search for Meaning (http://bit.ly/1Eag3f6), I have been trying to work out how I could use it to combat my own depression.  The thing that I have struggled with is whether, when I am at my worst, I retain the last “human freedom”, or can depression be defined as the inability to choose one’s response.

In my first post (http://bit.ly/1zGnn78) I described my breakdown as a complete loss of control of my own mind.  How could I have had a choice, if I had no control over my own thoughts?  Then again, I also felt that suicide was inevitable, that I would not be able to stop it.  If that was really true, then how am I still here? Did I still have the ability to choose? Was I able to regain control, even for a split second, or did I have control all along?  The problem is of course that I have no way of ever knowing for sure what happened, let alone what I was thinking at the time.

The quote above, from Nathan Filer’s moving and uplifting novel The Shock of the Fall, is written by the 19 year-old schizophrenic narrator Matt Holmes. Not only does this seem to describe one of the inherent problems in diagnosing, treating and even understanding mental illness (i.e. the fact that it is impossible to be objective about, or sometimes even describe your symptoms), it has been a useful weapon in my constant battle to stay in control.

Obviously, schizophrenia is very different to depression, but thinking of my illness as an “it”, or even better a “he”, can be very helpful in recognising when I am suffering, and most importantly giving me an early warning to seek help.  This idea was brilliantly articulated by Niall Breslin, well-known Irish musician and former gaelic football and professional rugby player, in a powerful and brave speech about his experience of general anxiety disorder.  If you have not seen it yet, you really should: http://bit.ly/1A50rIL.

In the speech, “Bressie”, as he is better known, explains how he personalised his illness, gave it the worst name he could think of, and fought back by doing things that he knew “Jeffrey” would hate, which, as Jeffrey was a part of him, meant facing his own fears.

I have fully adopted this approach, although my depression is called “Alan”.  Not only is this an incongruous name for something so powerful, but I imagine my depression having the voice, social skills and worldly experience of Norfolk’s most famous son, Alan Partridge. Although I am not going to buy a Mini Metro, or support the pedestrianisation of Norwich City Centre, I know that the two things that my Alan hates most are writing openly and creatively about himself, and running up mountains.

This is perhaps why the blog has been such a release for me, and a massive turning point.  Like Bressie, my life has become so much brighter as a result of telling the world about my experiences, and the incredible response that I have received has only made me wish that I had done it sooner.

This is not to say that anyone with mental health issues should do this.  Everyone’s story is different, and all I can do is tell my own.  More importantly, this is only a very small part of my treatment.  I am very, and unashamedly, reliant on fairly high doses of medication, regular therapy, and having so many people looking out for me.

Moreover, there is not, as far as I am aware, a cure for my illness, and my life will be a constant battle for control. At the moment, I seem to have the upper hand, but can I promise that I will never be back to where I was at around 5:30pm on 7 February 2014? No. But what I can promise is that I will do everything in my power to keep Alan from Bouncing Back.

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Mind Control I: The Last Human Freedom

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“Between stimulus and response is a space. In that space is our power to choose a response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”
– Dr Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Of all of the quotations that I have, or will, post on my blog, this is probably the most powerful.  Dr Frankl was an Austrian psychologist and concentration camp survivor, who lost his father, mother, brother and pregnant wife to Auschwitz.

The German title of the book gives a much better idea of what it is about: “trotzdem Ja zum Leben sagen: Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager”, which roughly translates to “…to say Yes to life none the less: A psychologist experiences the concentration camps”.

The main message that I took from the book is that situations, circumstances or people can take away everything a person has, except the “last of human freedoms”; the ability to choose his or her attitude, to be “worthy of their suffering”.

To even survive what Dr Frankl had to endure, to rise above the unimaginable horror, let alone use it to create a school of psychotherapy that is still used today to treat a number of illnesses, is incredibly empowering. One of the main tenets of his theory, logotherapy, is that life has meaning in all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.

It was only while reading the book that I realised that I had received this message before, and in the context of running.  In 2012, I ran the Paris and Edinburgh Marathons in aid of the fantastic charity Freedom from Torture (http://freedomfromtorture.org). Many of its clients have been through horrific experiences, yet were able to establish a new life, and use what they had been through to help others, much like Dr Frankl.

I have used their example to get me through many a race or training run: to ignore the feeling that I can’t run another step or that I should never have started in the first place, and to remind me that whatever it is that I am experiencing, it is most definitely not torture.

I am reluctant to link the suffering of concentration camp inmates and torture survivors to running around two of the most beautiful cities in the world.  What makes me do so is one of the other powerful messages from Man’s Search for Meaning, which has been instrumental in helping me come to terms with my illness.

One of the most misunderstood aspects of depression seems to be that a person needs to have a reason to be depressed.  Compared to most, I have nothing to be “depressed” about. I have a stable, supportive family, a good job, nice house, great friends, a beautiful, loving and supportive wife and two boys who I could not love any more.  If people can live through persecution, torture, poverty and other extreme physical or mental suffering, how weak and cowardly must I be to be unable to cope with another day?

This does of course ignore the fact that depression is an illness, and in my case most likely caused by a chemical imbalance, so is in a way a “physical” rather than “mental” disorder, like diabetes or asthma.  At times I find it very difficult to remember or even believe this, particularly when I am feeling low, but I cannot argue with Frankl’s conclusion that:

“…a man’s suffering is similar to the behaviour of gas.  If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber.  Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little.  Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.”

This seems to me to be essential in combatting depression, both for the sufferer and those around them.  For the sufferer, one thing that he or she should never do is feel guilty or ashamed, or compare his or her situation to anyone else’s. As importantly, no-one should assume that an objectively “good” life makes a person immune from depression or suicidal thoughts.  Spotting the signs can be very difficult, particularly for long term sufferers that have become adept at hiding the inner turmoil, but talking openly, and reducing the stigma around depression and suicide, can, and indeed have been incredibly effective.

As described in the Guardian last week (http://bit.ly/1FohyM4), the NHS is running a number of pilot schemes to reduce the stigma surrounding suicide, based on the incredibly successful programme in Detroit, which has reduced suicide by 82%.   What someone suffering from depression needs most is professional medical assistance, in many cases (such as mine) it will take a family member, a friend or a colleague to get this.

Moreover, even a stranger could be the catalyst needed for a sufferer to get help, or to divert him or her from taking the final step.  The details of my darkest hour are for another post, but what I can say is that a woman who I had never met, and am very unlikely to meet again (particularly as I can’t really remember what she looked like), saved my life with the smallest act of kindness.