The Depression Lottery

By any objective standard my life is very good at the moment. I can’t wait to get married soon, my job is going well and I am enjoying sorting out the garden. So why is my head still determined to be a mess on a regular basis?

I keep feeling unsettled, messy and frustrated mentally. I have absolutely no reason to feel this way, and that fiercely logical autistic part of my mind is absolutely furious about this state of affairs. I know that it is my depression, mental illness which is in no way driven by external factors and that is one of the most frustrating things about it.

I have known people with a gluten intolerance who know that if they eat wheat they will pay for it later with a bad stomach ache. So when they are offered some food containing gluten they can make the decision as to whether the pleasure of eating it is worth the pain later.

Mental illness and indeed many other conditions do not offer the luxury of that choice. All I can do to attempt to manage my depression is to ensure I keep taking my medication. But even then every day is a total roll of the dice whether my head is going to play nicely or not. It drives me nuts.

So if you know someone with depression, please be aware that they are forced to play this not very fun lottery on a constant basis, there is nothing they can do to influence the result and nobody is more frustrated with it than them. All you can do is to support them in the way that works best for them and hope alongside them for the dark clouds to pass as soon as possible.

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Let Me Be Very Clear….

The European election results are in, and one key message seems to be that if you are not clear what you stand for, you have no chance. The two traditional main parties have both suffered badly at the polls, not least because they are split within themselves and nobody is really clear what they stand for on some of the big issues. Wherever you stand on Brexit, you need to know what you are voting for. This, as much as the policies themselves, are what has gone wrong for these parties.

Compromise can be a wonderful thing, but it is quite different from sitting on the fence. Compromise is about knowing what you want, what you believe in and then considering and negotiating what concesssions you can and need to make to those with a different view in order to gainĀ  wider support for your key objectives. You cannot please all of the people all of the time, and if you try you usually end up upsetting almost everybody.

It is easy to blame our politicians, and I do agree that we have a particularly poor crop at the moment. Really, anyone that wants power is highly unlikely to be suitable to hold it, but that is another story. But there is a big lesson for us all here. We must all be clear about what we want and what we are trying to achieve. If we are not sure ourselves about that, we need to think it through properly and be sure of our position before we present it to others. A muddled position without clear objectives will quickly be found out in any walk of life.

One key question I am finding very useful at the moment is “what does success look like?” I started asking this at work in response to proposed changes to try and get to the bottom of what it is that the change is trying to achieve. For me, as an autist, if I understand what a change is trying to do, what problem it is trying to solve, it can help me to deal with the change, which is always a difficult process for me and many other autistic people.

Unfortunately, the question often seems to cause far more consternation than I would have hoped. People have not thought through their proposals to the end, or even the desired end. If you do not know what success of a project looks like, how can you possibly know how to implement it? It is like setting out on a journey without knowing the destination. You are bound to get lost, and how will you know when you have arrived?

So I draw 2 key messages from the election results. Firstly, British politics is a mess and is likely to remain so for some time. Big changes are needed in the system and our politicians. Secondly, clarity is vital for all of us in every walk of life. Confusion and ambiguity gets you nowhere. A sentence that starts with “let me be very clear…” is likely to be anything but.

You are entitled to your view and opinion, as others are entitled to disagree with it. But if we are all clear about where we stand and what we think, life will be much easier for us all.

Give It A Try

As my partner is very keen to remind me, I will be 50 years old later this year. I have been lucky enough to try many things in my nearly half-century, but there are also many things I have never done. I have never, for example, ridden a horse or rowed a boat.

I don’t feel a great sense of regret about either of these, but what if I had tried them when I was young enough to get up out of a chair without groaning and found that I loved it or was very good at it? What experiences, pleasures or even careers have I missed out on as a result of never trying things out for myself? How can you possibly know if you are a natural at horse riding, rowing or many other things until you try them?

This may be starting to sound like a bit of a mid-life crisis rant but it really isn’t. It is never possibly to try everything and I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to try a whole lot of things and, in retrospect, wise enough to try out a decent proportion of those things, though not all of them.

We can all look back as we get older and wonder what if. I do know I have tried things I would never have thought of had they not landed in my lap and absolutely loved them. I am only in the job I have now been doing for nearly 30 years because I did something similar for a summer job while at university purely to get some money and really enjoyed it.

We are all given opportunities to try something new all the time. Sometimes we might not recognise them as opportunities, or at least as opportunities that could lead to anything positive. But we give ourselves a much better chance of finding those things that bring us joy or we are naturally good at if we make a point of taking as many of those opportunities as we can and trying as many different things as possible.

I love the true story of the Welsh woman who married a Punjabi man and asked his relatives to teach her how to cook Punjabi food. Not only did she learn, she is now by agreement of her husband’s whole family the best cook of Punjabi food among them all. She obviously has a natural talent for it that she may never have uncovered.

The only way to identify some of our gifts and talents is to try lots of things and take up as many of the opportunities we are offered as we can. I suspect that I was never destined to be a world champion rider or rower, but I guess I’ll never know for sure!

All Hands on Deck

Not to put too fine a point on it, the world is in quite a mess at the moment. Here in the UK our political system appears to be broken beyond repair and we have major issues with healthcare, education, poverty and crime as well as a myriad of other issues. Beyond this, there are huge environmental issues to be tackled. The position in many other countries is little different from what I can see.

It can be very easy for all this to get us down, but I do think that all of these issues can be tackled. But it is no use just leaving it to our elected (or otherwise) leaders to solve them and take the necessary action on their own. Sadly, much as I would like it to be different, that has shown to no longer work (if it ever did), at least until there are major changes in the way our systems of government work, or in the approach and qualities of those who stand and are elected. I say this from a non-partisan position – I am afraid that we are being let down by politicians of all parties, left, right and centre.

It is now up to all of us to take action to tackle these problems. I am not for a moment suggesting we all take to the streets and stage a revolution, but we do need to make our voices heard and play our part. We need to make sure our governments know that this cannot go on and we will no longer elect those who play political games rather than taking action. But we also need to take positive action to change things ourselves. We all need too contribute our ideas and innovations. Yes, we are often knocked back when we try to change things for the better, but that must not stop us trying, however deflating it feels. The stakes are now too high to let ourselves be ignored.

Everyone has a role to play, and that needs to become embedded in our cultures. Imagine that you were trapped in a cave with 7 other people with a large rock blocking the only way out. The air in the cave is limited and running out. The only way that the rock can be moved is if all 8 of you push at once in a coordinated way. The problem is, you don’t like some of the other people in the cave. Some of them aren’t like you. They are different colours, they speak different languages, they think in different ways, they dress in strange clothes, they have ideas that you don’t understand. Would that stop you from joining them to push that rock out of the way and escape from the cave? Of course it would not.

So why do we not see that this is the very position we are in every day? Our societies face huge problems. But these can be tackled if we all work together. It is long overdue for us to set aside our differences and prejudices and work together. We are one human race on one planet. We all have a role to play and none of us can or should exclude anyone else. If we do, the rock will not move. It is time for all hands on deck and each of use using our strengths in parallel to move forward. It can be done, but we each need to play our part in both using our strengths and making sure everyone is included, supported and encouraged. And we need to start today.

A Voice in the Wilderness

I have written before about the importance of speaking up for things we believe in. However I know that this can be incredibly difficult and have negative consequences.

Last night I watched a great documentary about the moon landings that included a really inspirational story on these lines that I had not come across before. In the very early days of planning the moon missions, NASA evaluated several options for how to get there and back, such as landing the entire rocket on the moon and then bringing the whole thing back. The idea of a separate lunar lander had been raised and consistently rejected by middle managers who did not have the vision to appreciate that a different solution was required.

Fed up with this, an engineer called Dr John Houboult wrote directly to a very senior manager without going through the proper channels of his management chain. A very brave thing to do that could well have had serious negative consequences for him. But fortunately the manager listened and the lunar lander idea was then properly considered and recognised as the best solution. Man only made it to the moon because Dr Houboult had the courage to write his letter instead of letting small minded people in positions of authority prevail.

Think about that. One man not giving up on what he knew was the right answer led to 12 people walking on the moon. The problem he solved was rocket science, but the approach he took certainly was not.

Do not be put off from what you know is right by others without your vision. Stick to your guns. Keep trying, be the voice in the wilderness. Progress is made by individuals that think differently not by crowds acting like sheep. Be proud of your ideas and do not ever let yourself be silenced.

Mind and Body

I have just spent most of a weekend gardening. I enjoyed this immensely, and it was very kind of the Manchester weather to actually cooperate for once!

I got very tired at the time and I did worry that I might have overdone it and would pay for that today. But amazingly I feel broadly fine today. A little achey in places but nothing to worry about at all. Perhaps I am now only 99% totally unfit!

But as well as the physical benefits I am also feeling mental benefits. I have written before about my love of gardening so that is part of it, and I always find it very satisfying to spend time doing something where you can see the results at the end, ad that is nearly always the case with gardening.

More than that, though, I feel real benefits to my mental health from taking physical exercise. Today I feel much more positive and energised. I don’t know how long it will last but I’m enjoying it while it does!

The difficulty is that when you feel down the last thing you often want to do is exercise in some way. It’s the opposite to the natural depressed state of wanting to curl up in a ball in a corner and hope to disappear completely. So I an trying to burn the feeling after exercising as deeply as possible into my head so that I have sone chance of using it to overcome depression induced lethargy in the future.

I don’t know if this will work but it’s worth a try. And in the meantime I hope that some of the many seeds I planted yesterday manage to grow faster than the weeds!

Problems With Positive Feedback

Now that I have been free from an abusive relationship and situation for a while, I am finding that my mental reaction to certain things has yet to move on. Receiving positive feedback is a prime example.

When people tell me I have done something well, they are pleased with me or I have made a positive difference I simply don’t know how to deal with it. My normal reaction at present is to want to burst into tears. I know that this is not normal but I simply don’t know what else to do.

If the feedback is given verbally I manage to say thank you, but given that I struggle with face to face conversations at the best of times, it is a very difficult situation.

I am used to being told I have failed or am rubbish. It is upsetting but I know how to be upset, to turn it into anger and a resolution to put things right or do better.

I do not know how to use positive feedback. It is lovely to receive but I still can’t quite believe that people actually approve of and appreciate something I have done. It feels too good to be true and likely to come crashing down on me any minute.

I believe in myself completely and I want to be recognised for what I know I am good at, but I don’t know how to deal with that actually happening. I suspect that almost crying every time is not a sustainable position. Playing it down on response, which I have tried, doesn’t really work either.

I don’t know what the answer is. I hope my head will adjust with time and I suppose it is a nice problem to have, but it really is hard at the moment.

Tackling ignorance

So much prejudice and discrimination in our society is based on ignorance. People act badly towards others because they are different from themselves, they do not understand the differences and they feel threatened by them. The answer to this is education.

This won’t work for everyone – some people seem determined to hate – but I believe that most people are decent and reasonable at heart.

My own interest is raising awareness and understanding of autism and mental health issues. Yesterday I met the parent of an autistic child who has a wonderful card that he gives to people who act judgementally when his child has a meltdown in public. The card explains the basics of autism and that this behaviour is not just a case of appalling parenting, as many seem so quick to assume. I thought this was brilliant and I would love to see the looks on the faces of those who are given them.

We all judge far too much, myself included. None of us are better than anyone else, we are just different with different values and priorities. Obviously we think ours are the right ones, that’s why we have them. But actually as long as nobody is being hurt or damaged, all are equally valid.

Rather than judging and disapproving, we all need to work harder to understand each other. We are all on journeys, we are all damaged and we can all get very defensive when the right buttons are pushed.

This doesn’t mean that all behaviour is acceptable. There are basic standards of decent behaviour. But beyond that there is plenty of scope. Don’t be scared of differences, try and learn about them and the reasons behind them. We all have a lot to learn.

My meltdown revelation

For a long time I have thought that one frequently occurring aspect of autism which I do not have is meltdowns. In fact, I now realise that I very much do but I have simply not recognised them for what they are.

My meltdowns happen when I become completely fixated on resolving some issue or situation and end up going far beyond what any reasonable or logical approach would be. Frequently this is when I am trying to resolve an error with an order or service received and the response I am getting neither solves the problem nor addresses my concerns. If it is something that means a lot to me, at least at the time, I can quickly spiral into what I have thought of as getting myself in a state about the issue. I tend to try to keep escalating my concerns to higher levels and lose all sense of proportion. I usually end up in tears or very close to tears.

What is even more frustrating is that I can sometimes see it happening but feel powerless to stop it. It is like I am a third party watching it play out. I know I am being ridiculous and totally unreasonable but I can’t do anything to stop it.

The only way out is to find a way or be forced to step away from the situation for a while and calm down. This is usually followed by a deep sense of shame and embarrassment about how I have behaved.

I feel like I am having fewer meltdowns these days, I am sure as a result of a much more stable home life. But I do need to get better at avoiding meltdowns and managing them when they do happen. I guess it’s all part of the journey.

We all make mistakes

For years I was married to someone who would not let me forget my past mistakes. Things could be and were brought up many years later out of context and without any acknowledgement that everyone makes mistakes. It was awful to live with and frankly I am more than capable of berating myself for past errors without needing someone else to do it.

But so many of us do find it hard to move on from mistakes and to forgive ourselves. We look back and cannot understand why we behaved as we did, made that decision or said those words. But that is past now and cannot be changed.

Sometimes there are consequences of past mistakes that we have to live with and address for many years. I made some bad choices that resulted in debts that I am still repaying. But the fact that those consequences go on does not mean that berating myself about them or anyone else bringing them up again helps in any way. I know I got it wrong and I am now doing all I can to put it right.

We cannot change the past but our now will soon become the past and we can change the now. Decisions we make today may have consequences that linger for a very long time so it is important that we at least consider the longer view when making decisions.

I do like being able to look back at what has later turned out to be a mistake and at least being able to tell myself that it really did seem the right thing to do at the time and that I could not possibly have known any different then. Hindsight is always a big advantage and none of us would make any mistakes if we had a time machine!

But even if you have made huge mistakes, try not to live in the past. You can’t change it. Do all you can to put things right, particularly if other people were hurt as a result, but be kind to yourself. Learn from the past but do not be punished or tortured by it. Make tomorrow better.