The view from the top floor Bristol studio in which I’m working this week is spectacular. Panoramic. And the day on which I’m writing these words was made for it. A crisp, cloudless nod towards spring that is stirring the city’s soil and the hearts of its people.
But the week did not begin like this because on a bleak midwinter’s Monday I experienced uninterrupted blue of an entirely different nature, and I didn’t get out of bed.
I get down sometimes, and anxious.
It’s worse in the winter, a form of seasonal depression really, but tagging myself with that label makes me feel uncomfortable.
Firstly, because my depression is mild and seasonal, not clinical or life-threatening, it feels like an overstatement to apply that term to something I mercifully experience only seldom.
Nonetheless, if I haven’t seen the sun for a prolonged period of time, I can become overwhelmed with negative emotions. Tearful, anxious, irrational. Unwell, essentially. Unable to get on with my day. Markers of an illness that our society continues, despite its ubiquity, to misunderstand, stigmatise and trivialise.
Secondly, I’m self-employed. To admit on such a public forum that my mental health is sometimes below par makes me feel vulnerable and wide open to scrutiny. But I’m admitting it because it feels important to do so. And I know that I’m far from alone.
Depression and self-employment
Easton, Bristol, UK, where I live, work and play, is a hive of self-employed activity.
Musicians, artists, performers, therapists. No matter the industry, this city is full of people paving their own way. And of course it’s not just Bristol.
As technological advancement continues to redraw the boundaries of what is and isn’t possible, an increasing number of people across the globe are turning their backs on more traditional models of employment.
Coupled with this is the fact that, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), an estimated 350 million people suffer from depression, making it the leading cause of disability worldwide. Being alone is, naturally, a statistical impossibility.
Even so, it can be difficult to admit that you’re feeling overwhelmed, especially when your source of income relies so heavily upon your capacity to be creative and draw from a well that, when you are depressed or feel low or anxious, is likely to be on the dry side.
So, you’re struggling to get up and going, knowing all the time that if you don’t get up, you won’t find work / meet that deadline / get paid.
You’re experiencing self-doubt, questioning the quality of your output and, although you’re not well, you’ve internalised the societal stigma around mental health so you feel that you really ought to be fine, and give yourself a far harder time than you would if you had, let’s say, a cold. That’s a lot of pressure for someone on a down day.
Age and experience have taught me how to take that pressure off.
I’m by no means immune to it but I know what I need (and what I don’t) to manage my small black dog when it comes.
I’m much more accepting of down days now, less fearful. I know the time will pass as all things do. If I wrestle or berate it, my dog is more likely to bite. But if I respect, allow and sit with it for a while, it will no doubt wander off before too long.
I have more insight these days, I know when to crack on and when to switch off. Sometimes gently getting on with whatever you need to do can shift your state of mind. Sometimes it can’t. Knowing the difference and accepting with no judgement when the latter is the right choice can bring real peace in my experience.
I try to treat myself like I’d treat a friend, avoid piling shame and frustration on top of feelings that are already painful and exhausting. If the day isn’t working out so well, that’s fine. Tomorrow is another and it always comes. In the mean time I might eat some nice food, run a bath, listen to music or watch a film. Anything to give comfort and replenish the stocks.
I used to observe the approaching autumn with dread; diminishing daylight and decaying leaves marked the start of a prolonged and bumpy ride.
Then I got a bike and my experience of winter changed completely because I was producing so many endorphins.
Cycling is just one of many ways to do it but moving your body and getting out of your head can have a lasting, transformative effect on your mental health.
A problem shared
I am no doctor and this is no foolproof advice.
But I’m writing this because one of the worst things you can do when you feel blue is to shut yourself away and suffer in silence. I’m sharing my experiences in the hope that, if you recognise some of the things I’ve described here, you’ll tell someone too.