Mental illness

I have suffered from mental illness all my life. At various times I have been diagnosed with or told I have or have had: major depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobias, ADHD, autistic spectrum disorder, narcissitic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and maybe others I can't remember. I don't believe I have all of these, but I certainly am occasionally very depressed and sometimes very anxious.

Books. I am writing a book on my experiences as a psychologically ill professor of psychology. I am also writing a book on the fear of death and the meaning of life.

Book reviews. See here for a collection of reviews of books on mental illness, experiences with mental illness, and psychopathology.

Mental health resources. Links to some useful pages.

Suicide. Like most who are very depressed I often think about death, but just now I am glad to be alive. Studies of the few "jumpers" who have survived falling from the Golden Gate Bridge have in common with all studies shown that people regret the act of suicide as soon as they begin it. That means that no matter how bad things are, there is always hope, and as unlikely as it might seem, a reason not to go through with the act. If you are thinking of killing yourself you need immediate help. At the very least phone the Samaritans now - what have you to lose?

My Mental illness blog

There are several blogs on depression, anxiety, meaning, and existentialism. The main focus of the blog is on a psychologist (me) struggling with mental health issues, particularly depression, anxiety, and OCD, while trying to live a fulfilling life. What does it feel like to be depressed? What does it feel like to be very anxious? What does it feel like to be obsessive-compulsive? And what can we do about it?

What is a fulfilling life, and how can we cope with existential despair and a fear of death? I post (fairly) regularly.

NOTE: This blog is a duplicate (without the pictures and tags) from Wordpress, where it is called What is the meaning of my life?.

There are a lot of posts so I have split them up by topic. However there is much overlap between topics, so some posts might appear twice.

Posts on mental illness in general

Posts on depression

Posts on anxiety

Posts on obsessive-compulsive disorder

Posts on phobia

Posts on working with a mental illness

Posts on coping with weight when taking medication for mental illness

Posts on time management

New and most recent blogs

Things people say (5 May 2023)

There are many things people say to me about my mental health – and that of others – that annoy me. I am sure they may have the best intentions in mind. They usually mean well. They think they’re helping. Speaking to others, I know that I am not alone in feeling that normal, healthy, happy people should be more guarded. All my life people have been saying things like the following to me.

“You should stop wallowing in your misery and snap out of it and pull yourself together.” As though I have a choice. I find this the most annoying thing people sometimes say.

“But you are so successful …”. I am often told that and it is clearly given as a reason as to why I can’t be mad, or be on the spectrum, or have ADHD. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that by most measures I have been relatively successful in my career, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been very hard work, or that I haven’t just been very lucky. (Yes, I have “impostor syndrome” too.) Or that I couldn’t have done even better with a more normal brain.

“You should just go for a run.” It helps, I know, but when you are severely depressed you just can’t. And it will not cure a seriously depressed person.

“I know you’ve had mental health problems but …” People have actually said this to me. Bring on the equality, diversity, and discrimination training in the workplace! Would they have said something similar to someone in a wheelchair?

If only people would stop before they say anything personal to someone struggling with mental health problems and ask themselves “would I say this thing to someone with cancer?”. Of course the person might think that mental illness and physical illness are different, and that the former is a person’s fault, while the latter isn’t. Changing that outlook is the most important task in the fight against stigmatising mental illness.

Don’t let people say any old rubbish to you.

(I am sorry about the brevity of this post, but a post is better than no post. I have been “wallowing” a great deal lately.)

Weird (8 February 2023)

All my life, people have been calling me weird, so many that I have at last accepted that they are probably right.

“Weird” is a statistical label; people are weird if they’re out there on the extreme of some behavioural dimension, or more likely dimensions. A dictionary definition is:

“Very strange and unusual, unexpected, or not natural.”

That definition doesn’t capture the usually pejorative way in which “weird” is used as a label. Also, it’s not simply being extreme on any behavioural measure. You can be very clever, or very extravert, and I doubt anyone would call you weird. No, weirdness implies a special sort of unusualness. It’s thinking or behaving in some unusual way that catches the attention of most people and makes them want to pass some slightly negative judgement. Looking odd, having an unusual hobby that is considered esoteric (or “boring”, as though the activities of most people have some inherent meaning that makes them worthwhile), saying inappropriate things, or repeatedly breaking social norms, are all likely to get you called a weirdo.

Being weird obviously troubles many individuals because the internet is awash with worried weird people looking for reassurance. My favourite question is “Is being weird normal?” – to which the answer was, surprisingly, “yes”. There is apparently, no normal. But while no one might be exactly average, I don’t think that really lets me off the weird hook.

There are even apparently benefits to being weird. Weird people tend to be more creative. Many scientists and mathematicians are distinctly odd. This finding shouldn’t be too surprising because people who achieve great things must be very unusual in some way.

I think my weirdness is a consequence of my neurodivergence, one of those increasingly fashionable terms that I think does have some value.

Neurodivergent people think and behave in atypical ways, and go against social norms, because our brains are different, either through genetics or upbringing or most likely both.

I have previously listed all my psychological symptoms, and here is a recap: depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobias, general phonological disorder, and autistic spectrum disorder (not to mention noise sensitivity, task avoidance disorder and completion anxiety and completeness obsession). Is it likely I have all of these independently? Of course not. They all stem from an underlying brain that’s significantly different from normal; my brain is sufficiently different from others to warrant a label.

You can be neurodivergent without it being a problem for anyone. It’s only difficult if it causes you pain or distress: in my case the depression, anxiety, and occasionally OCD do. I hesitate about adding “or if it causes other people distress” because people are sometimes upset by the behaviour of another when it is questionable whether they should be. A psychopath might not suffer but can hurt others, but is the naked rambler recalling doing anyone any harm?

There are even some people who seem weird to me. There is a chap who wanders around town with no shoes on, whatever the weather. But doubtless he has his reasons, and it’s none of my business. The world would be a happier place if people stopped telling others what to do so much.

So to all you self-confessed weirdos and freaks out there, with the caveat about being or causing psychological or physical pain: be free, be yourself, indeed rejoice in your weirdness. And if you don’t think that you’re weird, please don’t judge anyone else.

Sometimes I almost feel sorry for all you neurotypicals out there.

How to help recovery from depression (29 November 2022)

I have been overwhelmed by responses to my previous post on the experience of being anxious and depressed.

The comments fell into four broad categories:

1. Commiseration and agreement. The most common response, and I thank you all. It helps to feel supported and that others feel similarly.

2. I should turn to God. I realise this works for some people, but it is not for me. I am not though going to talk people out of it, or try to persuade them that they are wrong (even if I think they are). If you have faith, and it helps you, I am pleased for you.

3. You should choose to make yourself feel better. This sort of comment is fortunately rare, but the underlying belief is unfortunately quite common in society more widely, and misunderstands the nature of mental illness. It essentially says we are choosing to be ill; to use my favourite analogy, would you say that to someone with cancer? Pull yourself together and snap out of it? It is the sort of belief that stigmatises depression because it’s essentially saying that we are weak and can’t be bothered to help ourselves. It’s all our own fault. It just makes me annoyed.

4. It’s depressing. What did you do to feel better?

I’m going to focus on the final point. I’ve covered many of these things before but I’m putting them altogether here. This list covers how, with much help, I’ve made myself better from the nightmare described in my previous post. Note I say better, not well. Rather like an alcoholic, I fear I always be on the edge.

1. Seek help. There is no need to suffer alone. Call your GP or other health professional, call NHS Direct, or, if you are desperate and thinking about suicide, call the Samaritans. They are wonderful.

2. Remember that there should be no stigma attached to mental illness. You might meet the odd person who tells you to pull your trousers up, or that you brought it on yourself, or whatever, but they are wrong (see above). It’s not easy, but just ignore them.

3. Take medication. You’d take medication for flu, or TB, or cancer, wouldn’t you? Yes, many psychoactive drugs have side effects. You might have to experiment, and go back to your GP and psychiatrist, but remember it takes time for some medication takes time to work and for side-effects to settle down. A bit of constipation is a price worth paying for not feeling suicidal, but remember the extent and severity of side-effects varies from person to person. Consult your GP or psychiatrist if you are worried.

4. All things must pass. You will feel better, eventually. When I am bad I always remind myself of this fact.

5. Exercise as much as possible. I know it’s what everyone says (“when I feel down I just go out for a run”, a doctor once helpfully told me), and when you’re really depressed it’s one of the last things you’d rather do, but it does help. Even a brief walk will make a difference.

6. Go outside as much as possible. Nature makes you feel better.

7. Get as much natural light as possible in the morning. If necessary get a SAD light box.

8. Eat well. Eat for the brain, heart, and against inflammation. See below for some links

9. Stick to a routine you have worked out in advance. Routine might be a bit dull, but it helps mental health, minimises stress, and helps you sleep properly. Talking of which …

10. Get enough sleep at all costs, but not too much. Find a schedule that works for you. I swear by an afternoon nap.

11. Avoid toxic people like the plague. Do not make the mistake I have made many times of believing that you can reason with them or get them to change. Do not perseverate about what they say and just do not engage with them.

12. Consider getting a dog. A dog increases your lifespan by over a year. You have to go outside and exercise ever day. And it releases so much oxytocin. Beau (above) has been a lifesaver for me, perhaps literally.

I should say that of course I don’t have any magic bullet for depression, or any form of mental illness. If I did I’d be well myself, and probably rich. These things have helped me though. I apologise if it all sounds a bit trite and simple.

Links to healthy eating sites

The Mediterranean diet for general good health and increased longevity.

The DASH diet for hypertension.

The MIND diet for a healthy brain and reducing risk of Alzheimer’s.