‘Make It Be Spring’

‘Get rid of death. Celebrate increase. Make it be spring.’

– ‘February’ by Margaret Atwood.

Nice Saturday afternoon #spring #nofiler #uniofnottingham

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I’ve just finished Margaret Atwood’s poetry collection, Eating Fire. It’s a selection of thirty years of her poetry from 1965 – 1995. Poetry collections are not the first books I reach for. I enjoy some spoken word poetry enormously, and have read some amazing poems recently that have just been echoing around my mind. But I struggle with some written poetry. I feel like I’m learning, though. There are some amazing poems in Eating Fire and I can see myself re-reading this over and over again.

‘February’ struck a big chord with me in particular because it’s actually February now (wow, right?!) and this month is the absolute worst. It’s bleak and your body is craving spring and light and warmth (and chocolate eggs) and it’s not getting them. Though I’m not experiencing the dreaded Winter Blues as much as usual this year, I am craving spring. Loved ones are over winter, we all just want it to be over now. The signs are there: daffodils and bluebells and snowdrops are around. It’s getting lighter again in the evenings. It’s coming, but it’s coming too slowly!

‘Winter. Time to eat fat / and watch hockey / […] February, month of despair, / with a skewered heart in the centre. / I think dire thoughts, and lust for French fries / with a splash of vinegar.’

The forced romanticism of Valentine’s Day can make the bleak February feel worse. Even if you do have a partner, if you don’t feel romantic on that day then you can feel like a failure. And if you’re single, it’s probably best to hibernate until the disgusting pink chocolate hearts disappear. The one upside of February, though, and a day I always enjoy more than Valentine’s, is Pancake Day. We need more Pancake Days in February.

Or, better than that, make it be spring.

I find that I can get the ideas and images of one poem in my head at a time, which is a very different experience to how I read fiction. I get astounded with poems which get stuck in my head – how has the author managed to get across these ideas in that small amount of words? And it’s often simple ideas, such as how the seasons can affect how you feel, which can most stand out to a reader.

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On Binge-watching and Depression

I read an article a couple of months ago on Buzzfeed. It was all about the TV series people watched when they were depressed (it’s here!). The thing I watched, in November and December last year, wasn’t on the list. For some reason, I was obsessed with House.

I was prescribed anti-depressants in November. I hadn’t taken them for nine years and I couldn’t remember how I felt when I was on them. I don’t remember being very present, so I was hesitant to start taking them again. When the doctor says that it’ll take around two weeks to adjust, they are being fairly conservative with their estimate. I couldn’t think – I got my boyfriend to look at an essay I’d written for uni because I couldn’t concentrate on it. It barely made any sense. My fears about medication had been confirmed but, hey, I didn’t really mind at that point.

I couldn’t read, couldn’t write and was feeling very tired all of the time. But at least I wasn’t constantly crying anymore. I had no job to go to and I was too tired in the mornings to get up to go to seminars. I found that I could do domestic cleaning and cooking tasks if I was listening to something. And then I realized that House was on Netflix.

When House was first on, in the long-ago time of the mid-noughties when we had to wait a whole week between episodes, I would watch it every week. I liked watching it with my mum the most, because she was a nurse (and has now just retired) and she would sometimes guess what the problem was before the doctors / actors. I liked that.

I started watching House. I can’t explain why I got so addicted to it. House made sardonic comments about the state of humanity – he lives in a worldview where ‘everybody lies’ – this appealed to me in my sedated but still fairly nihilistic state. It was a strange sort of comfort I got from watching these episodes. Based, as the show is, on Sherlock Holmes, there is a formula: clever man eventually finds out The Thing. Then everything goes back to normal.

Perhaps it was the curing of patients that got to me, perhaps it was the disaffected world view that Dr House presents. Whatever it was, watching Dr House was all I could do for a couple of months as my medication kicked in. I thought I was alone in the bizarre phenomenon, but the Buzzfeed article made me see that this wasn’t the case. When a person can’t read, they need to get their stories from somewhere. Maybe experiencing stories is something intrinsically vital to us. And, because television is so passive, it can just sit there with you as you attempt to get back on your feet. Binge-watching TV is not a solution to any problem, but it can help your brain switch off for a little while.

Dear Stranger…

I #amreading Dear Stranger, a heartfelt book of letters in aid of the charity #Mind #letters #bookstagram

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I thought it fitting that my first blog post in five months should feature a book with ‘stranger’ in the title. So, for creativity’s sake, I thought I’d address this blog post to you, dear reader and possible stranger…

Dear stranger,

There’s a book I read recently which I think everyone should read. It’s that life-affirming. Dear Stranger sees fifty different authors write letters about happiness. Most letters are thought-provoking, some are hilarious and some are heart-breaking. All have something interesting to say. Happiness certainly doesn’t mean one thing to everybody.

Matt Haig writes a letter to his twenty-four year old self, knowing that the poor man has three years of clinical depression ahead of him. He writes that ‘the next three years are going to be the three worst years you will know.’ But he manages to end on a hopeful note, about remaining strong. It’s a wonderful letter and he speaks a searing truth when he writes that ‘depression draws a line. It separates life into eras. It will give you a BC and AD of your own life.’ Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive is in a similar vein and also well worth your time.

Caitlin Moran’s letter manages to be both funny and upsetting. It’s like when you’ve been crying a lot and you see something silly and then you’re laughing-crying. She talks about being kind to yourself, being careful with the things you tell yourself. So, she gives her inner voice the identity of a dachshund called Eric: ‘Oh, I treat Eric so well! I make sure I walk Eric everyday, for I have found he gets morose if he’s cooped up. […] He needs to gallop around a bit, woofing – which I disguise as jogging, and going “AHHHH!” at the top of steep hills. He needs regular meals, and a good night’s sleep, and to be stroked, curled up on the sofa, watching musicals.’ I think I might do this.

A lot of the more thought-provoking letters entertained the fact that, in our society, we are sold the idea of happiness. We’ll be happy when we buy a certain bag, for example. And this isn’t true. It is fairly damaging, in fact. If we are not happy we are told that there is something wrong with us. We aren’t designed to be constantly happy and selling the idea of happiness is exploitative.

Ah-hem. I also love the letters from Martha Roberts, who writes a letter to a depressed woman she sees in a cafe, and Ellen White, who is a far wiser teenager than I ever was. Tony Husband’s cartoon was very touching. It’s interesting to see what the authors come up with in terms of just writing a letter. Looking back at it, I enjoyed so many of the different perspectives in this book.

So I think you should read Dear Stranger, because it might affect you more than you’d think.

Yours sincerely,

Katharine Lunn.

 

Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig

I #amreading Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig #bookstagram

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Reasons To Stay Alive is amazing. Matt Haig writes honestly of his experience with depression and his ways of coping with it. I know this is often said, but I really couldn’t put this book down.

Today, we are far more open and accepting of mental illness than we probably ever have been. But we tend to want to hear survivors’ accounts; we want to know that the person is all better now. But most mental illness isn’t something as easily overcome-able as that. Mental illness often lingers; it can return when you least expect it, often taking you by surprise. This is all covered here. Haig talks us through his recovery from his first deep depression, and talks about days when he thought he was getting better, only to find that there was still a long way to go.

I hadn’t given much thought to masculinity and mental illness until fairly recently. I had read a lot about women and hysteria and a lot of mental illness being attributed, and in some cases invented, to keep women quiet. But for many men, even now, talking about how they feel and feeling down are things that aren’t supposed to happen to them. Men are told that they are the ‘do-er’s in life. What happens when they suddenly can’t do anything? Haig states that suicide is ‘the leading cause of death among men under the age of thirty-five’. Men are conditioned not to talk about these things. Men are conditioned to act. We need to rid our society of this mentality.

I enjoyed the darkness and the light here. Haig writes short chapters, which are great for people who are feeling low and probably aren’t able to concentrate well. There are heart-breaking lists, pinpointing these messy thoughts and feelings precisely, such as ‘How to be there for someone with depression or anxiety’ and ‘Things depression says to you.’

The book ends on the chapter ‘Things I have enjoyed since the time I thought I would never enjoy anything again’. It wonderfully begins ‘Sunrises, sunsets, the thousand suns and worlds that aren’t ours but shine in the night sky. Books, Cold beer. Fresh air. Dogs. Horses. Yellowing paperbacks…’ Haig here details his reasons to stay alive, which reminds me of a great little book called The Sweetness of Life by Françoise Héritier. Héritier’s book is essentially a book-length list of things she enjoys. Taking time to realise what makes you happy in life is very useful, particularly when you feel that you won’t be happy again.

Reasons To Stay Alive is a book that demands thought and kindness in a world which can shun those things as unimportant. It is brilliant and I think that everybody should read it.

Five Ways To Fight The Winter Blues

1) Exercise

Last year I started an exercise regime in summer so I could have it established throughout winter. And last winter was a lot easier. There are lots of free exercise videos on YouTube and other websites and they are wonderful if you don’t have the time or the inclination to go to the gym. If you take ten minutes out of your day to exercise you really do feel the difference in your mood. Or you could just go for a walk, which might help you get a bit of Vitamin D from the sunlight (if there is any).

2) Eat your vitamins!

Eat lots of whole grains, protein, and fruit and veg. I know that I would rather attack a mound of chocolates when I feel low, but these things will make you feel better in the long-run than the highs that sugar and alcohol can bring. It is more effort to cook food from scratch, to buy vegetables when you’d just rather order a pizza, but it is worth it. I find that if I eat a chicken stir-fry or a vegetable curry I feel a lot better than I would if I ate something from a cardboard box that I stuck in the oven. Yoghurt, fruit and tuna sandwiches work for me too.

3) Be kind to yourself…

If you don’t want to go to that office party then don’t go. You can overload yourself with obligations to other people. If you want to sit at home and watch Netflix then don’t be afraid to do so! Figure out what it is that you actually have to do and forget about the rest. Do what you absolutely have to do and be a bit selfish sometimes. Get some ‘me time’!

4) … but don’t hide yourself away from people.

Talk to somebody you trust about how you feel. Time to Talk day is a great day to start! I find that when I start to tell people about what’s worrying me, the worries become easier to manage. Perhaps it’s because they’re verbalised rather than constantly circling around your mind. I think that being with other people can get you out of your head. And anything that can get you out of your head when you have the blues is a good thing. There are always people you can talk to, even if they’re strangers.

5) Hug Animals

Animals are good. When I am feeling especially low I try to find a dog I can hug. Animals have less baggage than people. They tend to let you stroke them and never tell you to snap out of it. Studies have shown that they can alleviate feelings of loneliness and improve moods. Animals always live in the moment too, perhaps this is a reason why they can make people feel better.

So that’s my short list of things I do to try to improve my mood over winter. And I know that these things are hard to do if you are already feeling down. If you are suffering from something bigger than the winter blues then please seek actual medical advice and you could also visit the Time To Change website to see a list of (UK-based) mental health support services.

Seasonally Disaffected

Winter always affects me. I feel that I become a different person when the nights start to draw in; I’m more tired, irritable. Everything seems more difficult. I often feel like I’m on standby, just waiting for spring to arrive. Minor inconveniences and mistakes become amplified in my brain. Dinner burning slightly, somebody saying something totally innocuous which I then overthink. Small things. I can’t read because my mind is racing. I can let my mood overtake me, and it makes me feel worse because I let it. Particularly at the very start and at the end of winter I feel desperately that I want to hibernate.

I think that Seasonal Affective Disorder is probably a natural thing for humans. As we get less daylight, it makes sense that our energy levels drop. But contemporary life doesn’t really allow for this: our winter schedules look similar to our summer schedules, demands placed on us don’t disappear because everything’s cold and dark. We still have to go outside and pretend to be adults.

The 5th of February is Time to Talk day on social media. Organised by Time to Change, an organisation that helps fight mental health stigma through social and political ways, it is asking people to initiate conversations about mental health. On Thursday I’ll be posting a list of things I do to make myself feel better – things that can help me when I’ve had a slightly bad day to when I feel like I’m on the edge of falling into a depressive black hole. I don’t think it’s a surprise that (thankfully) the only time I suffered from full-blown depression was over winter.

I think it’s important that, as a society, we talk more about mental health. And not in clichéd ways. I have shared how I feel at certain times of the year and other people go through far worse. Very often when we talk and read about mental health, the person doing the talking has overcome their illness. There are many ‘I beat depression and so can you’ kinds of articles. Because it is hard to describe how you feel when your brain isn’t working properly. But I think that conversations should be actual conversations, and not lectures. Maybe as a society we need to listen more and talk less. Maybe we should see mental health as more of a continuum and not a well/unwell binary. Maybe we should allow for more complexity. I look forward to hearing a lot of different voices on Thursday.